Byzantine Alternate History Series: Chapter V- Emperor Artavasdos, the Unlikely Hero of the 8th Century

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 8th century AD. This story will begin with events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Also keep in mind that this story has some content that may be disturbing to some readers.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th century

“Icon comes from the Greek word “eikon”, which means “images”, but in the Greek-speaking Roman world, before the advent of Christianity, eikon was usually used to describe portraits of humans.” -Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (2012)

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Welcome to the 5th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in chapter IV of this series, I went over the turbulent 7th century which saw the end of the early era of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire or Late Roman era and the beginning of its Dark Ages together with the sudden expansion of an unexpected empire, the Arab Caliphates as well as the turbulent reign of the autocratic emperor Constans II (641-668). The 7th century was a major turning point for the Byzantines as here they had lost more than half of their imperial territories first to their long-time enemy, the Sassanid Persian Empire which the Byzantines managed to defeat but just shortly after it, the over exhausted Byzantines were to face the rise of an unexpected enemy from the south, the Arabs who would stop at nothing to conquer in the name of Islam, which for the Byzantines could have been their end. The Byzantine Empire still at least managed to survive the expansion of the Arabs but it had cost them a lot as a large portion of their imperial territories, most importantly the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria were forever lost to the Arabs while the Sassanid Empire on the other hand had completely fallen to the rule of the rising Arab Caliphate by the mid-7th century. It was in reign of Emperor Constans II when things began to totally change for the Byzantines, first in terms of territory that with a great loss of it, the Byzantines had to adapt to these changes to increase military presence in order to check the expansion of the Arabs, thus leading to a reconstruction of the empire’s administrative system to the creation of smaller military-controlled provinces known as Themes in Asia Minor (Turkey), which would be the empire’s new heartland. On the other hand, the 7th century had also seen the major shift of Byzantium in terms of language and culture from Latin to Greek, though despite this drastic shift from Latin to Greek, the Byzantine Empire still and would always remain the Roman Empire continued with its emperors still called “Emperor of the Romans”. In the previous story, I went with the possible what if scenario of Constans II actually relocated the Byzantine Empire’s capital to Syracuse in Sicily which he did in fact plan to do seeing that Constantinople was far too dangerous and also if he survived the assassination attempt on him in 668 and living long enough to permanently divide Byzantium in half so that it would be much easier to protect and preserve for much longer. The previous story’s main topic on Constans II moving the capital to the west and dividing the empire in 2 parts between his sons with one based in Constantinople and the other one in Syracuse could have actually benefited the empire a lot as having an emperor in the west could help restore Byzantine rule in Italy which by then had already been slipping away to the rising power of the Lombards but also having the capital there could ensure the Byzantine reconquest of Egypt and North Africa from the Arabs. However, since the stories in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other, this story will go with the course of events in real history, therefore Constans II did die in 668 assassinated in his bath and his plan to move the capital west to Sicily never came to happen and from 674 to 678, Constantinople would be put under siege by the Arabs with Constans not being around to come to the aid of his son, the new emperor Constantine IV, although the Byzantines happened to win this war in reality and weaken the Arabs. What will continue though from the previous chapter will be the new “dystopian” condition the Byzantine Empire is at from being a world power like it was in the 6th century to now having to fight on the defensive for its survival against the endless rapid expansion of the Arabs and its people now having to live in constant fear, which is why this dystopian-like period for Byzantium would be known as the “Byzantine Dark Ages” going on for over 2 centuries until the Byzantines turn the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive. This new “Byzantine Dystopian” style for this alternate history series had started in the previous chapter as the Byzantine Dark Ages had begun and will continue on to this chapter where things will go at first from bad to worse until things will slowly get better again and as the dystopian Byzantine world from the previous story will continue to this one- despite the alternate history outcome from last time not continuing here- a lot of the elements of the dystopian Byzantine world will return here including the political instability and usurpers, emperors with a dictatorial style of ruling, people resisting against the rule of the emperor to change society, an empire in a dangerous situation, constant war and economic crisis, the new dystopian-like Thematic System, and unimaginable new technology like the superweapon Greek Fire. This story will begin with a background on the real history of Byzantium in the late 7th century briefly covering the reigns of Constantine IV (668-685) and his son Justinian II (685-695), followed by a 22-year period of anarchy (695-717) which had seen a change of emperor 7 times and with all this instability, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate which had been weakened by the Byzantine victory of 678 would once again come back with a vengeance taking over Byzantine lands including Carthage ending Byzantine rule in North Africa once and for all. The year 717 then would be a very crucial moment as Byzantium which after 22 years of instability would face another siege on their capital, Constantinople by the Arabs but at the end, the Byzantines under their new emperor Leo III the Isaurian would win once more and slowly turn the tide of war against the Arabs. The siege of 717 would then be remembered as the “Battle for the Fate of Europe”- more than the Battle of Tours in 732- as if things went in favor of the Arabs, then the Byzantine Empire could have ended right at this moment, thus this would allow the Arabs to continue expanding deep into Europe, and now if not for the Byzantine victory here most of Europe would have fallen under Islamic rule and history as you know it would be totally different and it was here in this battle where the Byzantine Empire and more particularly Constantinople would best be remembered as the wall that had protected Europe from the advance of Islam, in which Byzantium will prove to do just that many more times. This story will not yet end here and will also not be the what if scenario if the Byzantines lost and the Arabs won and how Europe would be different because of this, no, instead it would continue further on into the reign of Leo III (717-741), the founder of the Isaurian Dynasty which shows an even more dystopian side to the history of the Byzantine Dark Ages mainly due to his anti-icon policies known as Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons (painted human images) that will shake and split the empire’ population and plant the seeds for its permanent split with the western world or the Great Schism. This event in Byzantine history is one of its oddest in their 1,100-year history as the Byzantines being Orthodox Christians would surely be known to highly value their religious icons, but true enough there was a time when icons were outlawed as the emperor Leo III saw it as sinful therefore blaming all the empire’s setbacks against the Arabs on the overly excessive use and veneration of them. Now when it comes to doing a kind of dystopian style story set in the Byzantine Empire, the 8th century is a perfect time as like in all dystopian stories where a kind of autocratic government in charge outlaws something creating massive unrest and resistance, here in Byzantium the same can be said when the imperial government had outlawed religious icons which therefore outraged half the empire’s population while the other half supported it. This time in Byzantine history thus shows that an issue that may seem so small which here is about the use of icons could cause so much tension not only among the people of the empire but in the unity of the entire Christian Church as well. A little-known fact too is that something as small the banning of the use of icons by Emperor Leo III was a total major turning point in medieval history which would start the permanent schism between the Church of the east (Orthodox) and Church of the west (Catholic) and for the Byzantines, this was another period of great unrest despite having come out of a previous one and once again another episode in the endless religious debates of Byzantine history. The 7th century then was a major turning point as the Byzantines would for the first time face the expansion of the Arabs now having to fight on the defensive, while the 8th century with Byzantium at its lowest point would be another major turning point as it is here mainly due to Iconoclasm when the permanent schism both politically and culturally between Byzantium and Western Europe would start growing becoming something like a centuries long “Cold War”. The period of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire would not only be during Leo III’s reign but would go on for over a century which totally deepened its divide with the Latin Catholic west, although this growing divide with the west could have been reversed if Iconoclasm could have ended earlier and it surely did almost happen shortly after Leo III’s death in the year 742 when the Armenian Artavasdos, a loyal general of Leo III who helped him come to power in 717 who was however secretly against the Iconoclast policy usurped the throne from Leo III’s son Constantine V for the sake of ending Iconoclasm and restoring the use of icons, although in real history, the rebellion of the usurping emperor Artavasdos failed while the even more extreme Iconoclast Constantine V succeeded and would rule the empire for 3 more decades. Now the big question this story will tackle in its climax is what if Artavasdos’ rebellion succeeded and if the use of icons would be restored earlier on, would this lessen the chances for the permanent schism between Byzantium and the west and preserve Church unity?    

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 8th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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The Byzantine Empire in this story’s setting, 717 (purple)
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Map of the expansion of the Islamic Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates (622-750)

For this article, I am working in collaboration with Mario Puyat (follow him on Instagram @mariopuyatrewreplays and on Twitter @mario_puyat), a friend of mine who in this case helped me put this story together, thus making this story the second one in this series to be done in collaboration with someone (the last one being chapter III). In my previous special edition article wherein I interviewed 5 of my friends by having them react to quotes said by Byzantine era people, Mario happened to be one of these 5 and now he is returning for this article to give his take on Byzantine history despite not being so completely familiar with it. To give a quick background on Mario, he is a 22-year-old film student who plans to direct films and write movie scripts while at the same time is also a pop culture enthusiast being a big fan of the Star Wars, Marvel, and DC universes as well as of young adult dystopian stories, in which story’s genre will somewhat be just that, except not so much a young adult type. On the other hand, when getting to know me, Mario had developed quite an interest in Byzantium as well and not to mention, he previously helped me in making my Lego Byzantine epics for my channel No Budget Films as a co-producer as well as being a voice actor for a number of Lego Byzantine characters in my films, most notably the leading character Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos from the 2020 Lego 13th century Byzantine epic War of the Sicilian Vespers. Though neither a historian nor a passionate Byzantine history enthusiast, Mario has a passion for writing stories, which is why I chose him to have a part in the creation of a chapter of this series, and this one here is the perfect one for someone like him to have a part in as this one as I would say is something not so entirely Byzantine in the sense of being stuck in the past, but rather something more relatable to modern readers and pop culture enthusiasts as it has quite a modern take on it being a dystopian style story with a bit of family drama and intimate romance despite being set in the 8th century Byzantine Empire. In this 12-part series, I on the other hand wanted to experiment as well by having someone who isn’t so entirely familiar with Byzantium’s take on Byzantine history as after all, I do want to make the rich and fascinating history of Byzantium more accessible to a wider variety of people and not only limited to scholars and historians, and part of this means experimenting with the history of Byzantium by making some kind of fan fiction out of it, which is exactly what I’m doing here. Though most of this story is basically me writing it, Mario’s part comes in when creating the personalities and actions of this story’s characters to fill in the blanks in where history does not record them such as these characters personalities and intentions, so therefore, despite these characters being real ones, they had to be embellished here for the sake of creating a full story. When creating this story, I also did some extensive research using more scholarly but fun sources online such as the Byzantine history Youtube channels Kings and Generals, Eastern Roman History, and Thersites the Historian, as well as no other than the highly comprehensive History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson.

Now when it comes to the dystopian genre of stories, many would immediately think of only modern ones most notable George Orwell’s 1984– which I was also a great fan of and made fan fictions of it too-or more recent novels like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, but as it turns out, the dystopian genre is not only limited to a modern or futuristic world setting, but can go as far back as to the medieval era Byzantine Empire, especially if you are able to look closely into its history and use all your creativity. When it comes to the entire 1,100-year history of Byzantium from the 4th to 15th centuries, it is the 8th century’s story in which this article will be set in that I am least fascinated due to the fact that it had more internal than external struggles and not so much was documented about this period which therefore is why it is also called the “Byzantine Dark Ages”, but when looking deeper into the story of this era, especially with the lack of information, it is the perfect time in Byzantine history to create a highly experimental fan fiction, which is basically this story with Byzantium under the Isaurian Dynasty. Of course, to set the stage for this story, the same thing will go as the previous stories of this series with a historical background to it which will discuss the events that led to the dystopian setting of Leo III’s Byzantium beginning where the previous chapter left off as we leave the early Byzantine era and enter the middle part, then giving a background to the leading characters such as the madman emperor Justinian II and afterwards Leo III the Isaurian who originally was Konon, a Syrian shepherd of Isaurian origins with an Eastern influenced mind together with the Armenian Artavasdos as well who helped him come to power, then we proceed to the beginning of Leo III’s reign with the epic battle of the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople where the Byzantines again come out victorious. The dystopian genre of the story then comes in at the part on Leo III’s reign (717-741) especially when the ban on icons is imposed and how the people of empire would react to it.

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Coin of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), author of Byzantine Iconoclasm

Basically, a dystopian story features the world under the rule of a totalitarian government which envisions a bright future but really everything in society just goes wrong and the 8th century Byzantine Empire of Leo III is no exception to this kind of setting. As usual in dystopian stories where some kind of freedom to do something is banned by the government, here in this case it would be exactly the same case as in real history where the use of religious icons were banned, therefore icons were confiscated from everyone who owned them and either destroyed or burned, and again like most dystopian stories which feature a kind of dictator that runs the totalitarian government just like Big Brother in 1984, for this story, the totalitarian state supreme leader character would be Emperor Leo III, the author of the Iconoclast movement and after his death in 741, his son the even more Iconoclast extremist or simply the “Icon of Iconoclasm” Constantine V, wherein the climax of the story comes in. Most dystopian epic stories too feature a protagonist who is destined to rise up and overthrow the system, and for this story, it will be the historical figure the Armenian-Byzantine general Artavasdos who in reality from 742 to 743 usurped the throne from Constantine V in the name of restoring the use of religious icons. This story then will have the very much unknown Byzantine emperor Artavasdos as the lead character who was in fact the person that helped Leo III come to power and later as Leo III’s right-hand-man was married to Leo III’s daughter Anna which is surely what also gave him a claim to the throne in 742. Now many, even those who are very familiar with Byzantium may not really know much about this usurper Artavasdos or if they do, they would just remember him as an unsuccessful usurper who never had anything important to do with real history, but when getting to know him and his plans more, you would definitely find out that he could have in fact played a crucial role in Byzantine history by reversing the repressive movement of Iconoclasm before it would grow even stronger if he was able to survive and not be defeated and blinded by Constantine V in 743. As the lead character of this story, the 55-year-old Artavasdos in 742 would be a reluctant hero who is secretly against Leo III’s Iconoclast policy but is afraid to show it as he was also loyal to his father-in-law Leo III who he helped come to power in 717 but following Leo III’s death, he would have to rise up for the good of Byzantium or at least for those who value icons and their beliefs, also because he had some personal reasons to rebel which was mainly his envy and hatred for Leo III’s son Constantine V who he felt betrayed by as Artavasdos before Constantine V’s birth was promised the throne by Leo III. For this story too, there will however be no fictional character made up for it, instead with the help of Mario, I will somewhat fictionalize these historical characters in terms of personality as history true enough does not describe what these characters’ personalities were like. The 3 leading characters who’s personalities will be created in a fictionalized way for this story will include the general and soon-to-be emperor Artavasdos who in Mario’s take in creating the story would be the emperor’s loyal general but is deeply troubled by the emperor (Leo III) having a son; Constantine V who is Leo III’s son and heir being something like a smart but somewhat odd and insane, immature, arrogant, decadent, and bloodthirsty young ruler with an addiction to pleasure who believes he is always right and is a blind believer of everything his father says most especially Iconoclasm making him someone to hate more than to like; and Leo III’s daughter Anna who is Constantine V’s older sister and Artavasdos’ wife who here for this story would be an intellectual and artistic woman who behind her father and brother’s back is the leader of the resistance against Iconoclasm who in personality is nice and calm but becomes cruel and ambitious in order to protect the interests of her family as she is also abused by her brother who had envied her too. On the other hand, the much better-known emperor Leo III or Konon too will play a major role here in the story’s first two-thirds and although contemporary historians who wrote about him, most notably Theophanes the Confessor (758-817) who strongly opposed Iconoclasm portrays him as a total villain, here in this story, Leo III’s portrayal would be more unbiased as both the talented and cunning savior emperor saving Byzantium from its ultimate extinction at the hands of the Arabs and restoring stability following the 22-year period of Anarchy despite being of low birth but also would later on be a villainous ruler for his declaration of the banning of icons plainly for superstitious reasons which resulted in thousands of valuable icons destroyed and the human rights of those who venerate and create them violated whereas some even died for the sake of freely venerating icons. The big twist here will be on Artavasdos who for the most part would be Leo III’s right-hand-man strongly enforcing Iconoclasm in the empire with Leo III still alive, though after the death of Leo, he has a big shift in character when betraying Constantine V in 742, suddenly becoming a strong fighter against imperial Iconoclasm and a symbol for those who believed in the icons, even if his main reason to usurp power was his personal hate towards Constantine V. This story too will focus more deeply on the issues in the Byzantine Empire’s Dark Ages in the 8th century showing how Byzantium is no longer like it was in the Golden Age of Justinian I in the 6th century (as seen in chapter III), most especially with the empire at its lowest point of power and the internal war against icons tearing the empire apart whereas Iconoclasm would be popular with many most especially soldiers and those from the eastern provinces while many most especially those in the western provinces and women strongly opposed it. Therefore, this story will not focus too much on the external wars of Byzantium which they also did at this time not only against the Arabs but a new enemy being the Bulgars in the north; instead, it would be something more on the society of Byzantium and of course the constant burden of religious debates that Byzantium became famous for. Also keep in mind that this story will have a lot of mature content such as blood and gore, disturbing moments, language, substance, and a lot more.

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Guide to the Thematic System of the Byzantine army (from Wikipedia); this article contains a lot of terms of Byzantine army units
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A Renaissance era depiction of Byzantine Iconoclasm (breaking of religious icons)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- Constans II Relocates the Imperial Capital to Sicily

Byzantine History for Everyday People- Reactions to Quotes from Byzantium

Around the World in the Byzantine era- Part I (300-1000)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Themes of the Byzantine Empire

The Sieges of Constantinople

Lesser Known and Would be Byzantine emperors (695-1453)

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Related Videos to this era:

The 22-Year-Anarchy (Eastern Roman History)

The Arab Siege of Constantinople, 717-718 (Kings and Generals)


The Leading Characters:

Leo III the Isaurian (aka. Konon)- Byzantine emperor (717-741)

Artavasdos- Leo III’s imperial partner and Byzantine general, Strategos of the Armeniac Theme

Anna- wife of Artavasdos, daughter of Leo III, leader of the resistance against Iconoclasm

Constantine V Kopronymos- son and successor of Leo III

Anastasios- Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople

Niketas- Byzantine general, son of Artavasdos and Anna

Nikephoros- son of Artavasdos and Anna

Tzitzak- Khazar wife of Constantine V

Maria- Byzantine empress, wife of Leo III, mother of Anna and Constantine V

Eutychius- The last Byzantine Exarch of Ravenna

Character images below of these selected characters from this story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran:

Funko pop versions of the 3 leading characters of the story created by Powee Celdran- Artavasdos, Anna, and Constantine V:


The Background (The Themes, Justinian II and the 22-Year Anarchy, 695-717)         

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Since the late 630s, the Byzantine Empire had lost a great amount of territory, most notably the rich provinces of the Levant (Syria and Palestine) to the sudden expansion of a new enemy, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate or Islamic Empire from the deserts of Arabia in the south. The Byzantines never expected the people from the deserts of Arabia to be such a threat until the unexpected happened for Byzantium when the people of Arabia all united under the new faith of Islam and their unity combined with their ability to travel across deserts with such speed turned the Arabs from scattered tribes in the desert to a world power in an instant. In only about 20 years since the birth of Islam, the Arabs had now controlled much of the Middle East as well as Egypt which they had conquered from the Byzantine Empire and by 651, the Arabs had completely conquered all of Persia destroying the Byzantine Empire’s traditional mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire, thus the Arab Caliphate replaced the Sassanids as Byzantium’s eastern mortal enemy.

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Flag of the Rashidun Caliphate, the 1st Islamic Empire

Meanwhile, as the Byzantines lost most of its eastern provinces mainly Egypt and Syria, Asia Minor became its new heartland while the Taurus Mountains in Eastern Asia Minor would be its natural barrier against the expansion of the Arabs, although the Arabs were creative that when knowing they were unable to cross the Taurus Mountains into the Byzantine heartland, they soon enough began constructing their own navy after taking the ports of Syria and from there, they would begin attacking Byzantium by sea. By the 7th century, Byzantine territory had drastically shrunk not only because of the expansion of the Arabs but with the loss of almost the entire Balkans (Southeast Europe) to a number of external enemies mainly the Slavs and this was a devastating loss as the Balkans played a major role as the recruitment center for soldiers in the Byzantine army. In the mid-7th century, the Byzantines still at least had control of half of Italy as the other half fell to a new enemy being the Lombards and some of North Africa as the rest fell to the Arabs, though these remote parts of the empire were not under the direct rule of the emperor but of a semi-autonomous governor known as the Exarch who answered directly to the emperor and there were two of them controlling their own Exarchates, the two being the Exarchate of Ravenna that controlled Byzantine Italy from Ravenna and the Exarchate of Africa that controlled North Africa from Carthage. Now with the Byzantine Empire so heavily reduced in size and population and the heartland now being Asia Minor, the emperor Constans II (r. 641-668) saw the need to reorganize the empire’s administrative and military structure more particularly in Asia Minor, thus leading to the creation of the Thematic System or Themes between 659 and 661 which were smaller military-controlled districts named after their respective armies that controlled them.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium (r. 641-668), Illustration by Powee Celdran

Basically, in these new shrunken provinces or Themes, each of them had a mobile army assigned to it while recruitment too was done locally per Theme to increase the number of soldiers, while all young men too living in these districts were encouraged to join the army in exchange for land given to them, to also ensure their full loyalty to the empire. Each of these Themes were under a general called a Strategos who was both the top commander of the Theme’s army and the provincial governor and each of the Themes was to provide both soldiers and resources for the empire. The main purpose though for the Themes was more in terms of military matters as when the eastern border would be under attack, the army stationed in that Theme near there would immediately come to the rescue while on the other hand when another part of the empire would be under attack, the emperor could simply have another Theme’s army come over to that part, which therefore was a smarter defence method rather than how things were before when an entire army had to march from one end of the empire to the other when a war broke out. The first 5 Themes created under Constans II were all in Asia Minor and these were the Anatolic (Anatolikon) Theme found in Central Asia Minor, the Armeniac (Armeniakon) which was the largest one found in Eastern Asia Minor next to the border of the Arab world, the Thracesian (Thrakesion) Theme in the western coast of Asia Minor, the Opsikion Theme in Northwest Asia Minor right across the sea from Constantinople which consisted of the most elite army of the empire though as you will see would be the troublemakers, and lastly was the Karabasian (Kibyrrhaioton) Theme in the southern coast of Asia Minor which was basically the one controlled by the navy. While the Themes were being created, the Arab Caliphate entered its first civil war or the First Fitnah (656-661) which gave the Byzantines time to recover but at the end in 661, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate was destroyed and replaced by the new Umayyad Caliphate under Caliph Muawiyah I who made the Caliphate based in Damascus in Syria a more organized state and as the first Umayyad caliph or emperor, he was fully intent in taking over Constantinople. Knowing the Constantinople was too dangerous in location, Constans II in 662 left it for good later finding himself in Sicily wanting to make Syracuse his new capital which was also part of his plan in launching the Byzantine reconquest of Egypt and restore Byzantine imperial presence in the west but in 668, he was assassinated in his bath, thus his plan to both relocate the capital west and take back Egypt failed.           

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II
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Cavalry of the Arab Rashidun Caliphate, 7th century
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Map of the first original 5 Themes of Asia Minor created under Constans II
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Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate beginning 661

Following the death of Constans II in 668, Caliph Muawiyah I using his fleet took over some of the Byzantine ports of Asia Minor launching the first Arab Siege of Constantinople in 674, although this was not really a major attack but a series of intermittent skirmishes on Constantinople by the Arab army and fleet and up until 677, the siege was not coming into any results until the young emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-681), the son of Constans II counter-attacked the Arab fleet head-on using the secret superweapon Greek Fire for the first time totally obliterating the Arab fleet and army.

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Emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), son and successor of Constans II

In 678, the Arabs fled Constantinople and the Byzantines, thanks to Greek Fire emerged victorious while Muawiyah later signed a truce with the Byzantines agreeing to pay them annual tribute and return to them the islands and ports they previously captured from them. Following the death of Caliph Muawiyah in 680, the Arab world again fell into civil war which here was the Second Fitnah going on for the next 12 years, thus giving Byzantium some relief and time to recover after all the damage the Arabs had inflicted on them. Meanwhile, despite Byzantium for now saved from the threat of the Arabs, another new enemy would come for them from the north which was that of the Nomadic Bulgars from the Steppes near the Volga River in today’s Russia as when losing a war with Nomadic Khazar people of the area, the Bulgars were forced to migrate south to lands they could settle in, and the only available land was Byzantine Thrace (Southeast Europe). Leading the migration of the Bulgar hordes into the Balkans in 680 was their ruler or Khan Asparukh and with the eastern borders of Byzantium secured, considering the Arabs were again in conflict with each other, Emperor Constantine IV summoned the armies of all the 5 Themes to confront the Bulgars in battle at the empire’s northern border, the Danube Delta, where the Bulgar army led by Asparukh had already assembled at.

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Asparukh, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 681-700)

After assembling the Byzantine army at the Danube Delta, Constantine IV had to rush back to Constantinople after falling ill, although he also had more important matters to attend to, which here was the 6th Church Council wherein at the end, he succeeded at declaring the religious controversy of Monothelitism which his father stood for a heresy and reaffirming the Orthodox belief in the natures of Christ. Meanwhile, with the emperor not present in battle, the Byzantine army panicked and were thus defeated by the Bulgars here at the Battle of Ongal in 680, and as a result Constantine IV in 681 had to cede Northern Thrace to Asparukh acknowledging the birth of the Bulgarian state there or Bulgaria, which true enough is today’s Bulgaria. From here on, the Bulgarian state was born and there to stay which would later be both a valuable ally and brutal enemy to the Byzantines in different times as you will later see, and Constantine IV despite losing Northern Thrace to the Bulgars still remained popular as he solved a difficult religious controversy and successfully defended Constantinople from the Arabs earlier on, while at this time he would also create the new Theme of Thrace to further protect Constantinople from the nearby Bulgars. In 685, Constantine IV died at only 33 from dysentery later becoming a saint, and was here succeeded by his 16-year-old son Justinian II (born 669) who as the new emperor was very ambitious wanting to live up to the emperor he was named after, Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), Byzantium’s most influential ruler and also a saint, although Justinian II did not have which Justinian I had being the vast amount of wealth to carry out such ambitious conquests and building projects considering that the Byzantium of Justinian II was weakened and exhausted compared to the powerful Byzantium Justinian I inherited back in 527.

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Emperor Justinian II in his 1st reign (685-695), son of Constantine IV

It also happened here in 685 over in Byzantine Syria at the town of Germanikeia (today’s Kahramanmaras, Turkey) where a boy named Konon who would later be emperor was born to a simple family of Syrian and Isaurian origins as an only child and from a young age, Konon would develop the ability to speak the Arabic language together with his native Greek as his name suggests, but at the same time he could understand the culture and mind of the Arabs due to the fact that living close to the border of the Arab Caliphate, he was exposed to Arab people who came to his town to trade and from them, he learned everything about their culture. The one thing about the beliefs of the Arabs that intrigued Konon most was how they disapproved worshiping God through icons or the form of a human image as it was strictly forbidden for the Arabs as Muslims to worship God that way considering it as idolatry and as a Christian, Konon thought this was true enough the right way to worship God. Another factor that had influenced Konon’s stance against icons too which will be shown in his time as emperor later on was that coming from the east, most people there were Monophysite Christians, those who believed Jesus Christ was fully divine and not human, therefore as God it was not right to have an image of him unlike the Orthodox Christians of the western parts like Constantinople who worshiped Christ as God with images. On the other hand in the Armeniac Theme in 687, the person who will later help Konon come to power, Artavasdos was born, although history does not record his date and place of birth and family background except that he was a Byzantine-Armenian known as Artavazd in Armenian with “Artavasdos” as his name’s Greek translation, so for this story it will just be made up that he was born in the Armeniac Theme (Northeast Asia Minor) considering he was an Armenian and would be 2 years younger than Konon, and for this story is someone from a prominent military family.

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Greek Fire used against an Arab ship at the 674-678 Siege of Constantinople
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The coming of the Bulgars, Khan Asparukh and his Bulgar hordes arrive in Byzantine Thrace, 680

Meanwhile, back to Justinian II, he came to power with a great amount of luck as he was from the 5th generation of the unbroken Heraclian Dynasty founded by his great-great-grandfather Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), showing here for the first time in Byzantine history and in fact in all of Roman history that a dynasty ruled on for 5 generations in one straight hereditary line from father to son, but little did Justinian know he would be the last of his dynasty. The young emperor was deeply ambitious and a religious fanatic as well believing that it was his destiny to defeat the Arabs once and for all in the name of Christianity and considering the Arabs were still in conflict with each other, Justinian II’s armies successfully attacked the Arabs in Armenia and Syria thus retaking some lands the Byzantines lost and with the defeats, the new Umayyad caliph here Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) in 688agreed to pay tribute to Byzantium.

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Caliph Abd al-Malik of the Umayyad Caliphate (r. 685-705)

Afterwards, Justinian II focused his attention on the Balkans to deal with the Slavs and take back the lands Byzantium lost to them wherein Justinian himself personally led his men in battle and at the end, he managed to succeed in defeating the Slavs while the Slavs that survived were forced to relocate to Asia Minor to repopulate it and provide more troops as the previous wars against the Arabs there killed many. Justinian II would also put the Themes his grandfather Constans II created into full effect and this meant resettling people from across the empire into them in order to balance each Theme’s population but another reason of him doing this was to limit people of the same race (e.g., Slavs) for them to not rebel and in this process, as the Slavs being seen as a rebellious people by Justinian II were moved to Asia Minor and the Mardaites who were mostly Monosphysite Christians living in Southern and Eastern Asia Minor were relocated by Justinian II to the Balkans and this would be when Konon and his family were relocated from Byzantine Syria to Thrace, though it is not clear when this happened, but for this story’s case it would be in 695 before Justinian II was deposed. Now before Justinian II was deposed, as a fanatically religious ruler, he was the first emperor to put the image of Christ in the coins used around the empire and part of his imperial policy was to crack down on the last remnants of Pagan practices, meaning banning playing games such as Dice and Tabula in public as he saw it as Pagan in origins, thus this started making him extremely unpopular.

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Coin of Emperor Justinian II (left) with the image of Christ on the obverse (left)

Justinian II too was not only unpopular for being puritanical in his policies but strongly unpopular with the rich as he increased taxes on them as well as having rich tax evaders imprisoned and tortured and instead, he favored small landowners and farmers. In 692, the Second Fitnah had ended with Caliph Abd al-Malik victorious and the Umayyad Dynasty still ruling the Caliphate, though the caliph was extremely outraged seeing Byzantine coins with Christ’s image on them as again the Arabs being Muslims strongly opposed the idea of seeing God as a human so in retaliation against Justinian II, Abd al-Malik had Islamic art put on the papyrus scrolls the Byzantines imported from Arab Egypt and due to this, the enraged Justinian II declared war on the Arabs, also because the Arabs tried to imitate Byzantine art such as having mosaics in their capital, Damascus. The peace between the Umayyad Caliphate and the Byzantines then ended right here in 692 when both forces confronted each other at the Battle of Sebastopolis in Southern Asia Minor where the Slavic warriors Justinian had resettled to Asia Minor for the first time fought in the Byzantine army but at the middle of the battle, the 20,000 Slavs for unclear reasons- although most possibly because they were never loyal to Byzantium and were forced to fight for them- defected to the Arabs and at the end, the Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat. As a result of this defeat, Justinian II had the one responsible for it, the young leading Isaurian general Leontios the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme imprisoned and it was also here when Justinian II would show how much of a madman he was when he had the families of the defected Slavic warriors in the Opsikion Theme massacred leaving no one alive, according to the historian Theophanes the Confessor (758-817), who although portrays Justinian II as a madman, which is true for this story. Justinian II would later on become even more unpopular for his autocratic style of ruling which he inherited from both his father Constantine IV and grandfather Constans II shown when he summoned a Church Council in 692 also known as the Quinisext Council in which out of his own orders demanded that all Churches including the west which was basically the Church of Rome under the pope to use eastern practices in their liturgy like the use of the Greek language, and this surely offended the pope making this one of the first steps that began the split of the Eastern and Western Churches.

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Justinian II’s Quinisext Council, 692

Another thing that would make Justinian II be labelled as a madman was how he used the taxes he brutally extracted from rich taxpayers to expand the Imperial Palace complex in Constantinople by expanding the garden and constructing a new dining hall as a way to imitate Justinian I’s ambitious construction projects, but in the process of this as Justinian II built a new fountain in the palace, a church had to be destroyed, which also turned the Church against him. In 695, Justinian II released Leontios from prison after 3 years making him the Strategos of the newly created Theme of Hellas (Western Greece), but this here would be the downfall of Justinian II as when Leontios was assigned to Hellas, the population there mostly being rich landowners rose up under him naming him emperor against Justinian II. When arriving in Constantinople with the army of the Hellas Theme, Leontios was then backed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the people of the Blue faction of the chariot races mostly consisting of the aristocracy wherein they all plotted to overthrow the emperor.

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Mutilation of Justinian II’s nose, 695

The plot was then successful and the ministers of Justinian II who were responsible for the brutal taxation of the aristocracy were executed while Justinian II himself was caught and brought to the newly proclaimed emperor Leontios but rather than executing Justinian II, Leontios had his nose cut off, which here was practice for deposing an emperor known as Rhinokopia, as having a single deformity such as missing a nose would make someone unfit for sitting on the imperial throne as the emperor for Byzantines had to be seen as someone physically perfect. The 26-year-old Justinian II whose nose was mutilated was then loaded into a ship and sent over to the remote Byzantine colony of Cherson, a cold and desolate place north of the Black Sea in what is now the Crimea in Ukraine which was dumping ground for political enemies and the reason now why Leontios did not just execute Justinian II was because Leontios was loyal to Justinian’s late father Constantine IV who appointed him as the Anatolic Theme’s Strategos back in 682, therefore he wanted to honor his late friend by sparing his son, though this was not yet the end for Justinian II.

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Arab forces at the Battle of Sebastopolis, 692
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Slavic warriors, resettled into Asia Minor by Justinian II, defected to the Arabs in 692
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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial District featuring the Hagia Sophia, Imperial Palace Complex, Hippodrome, and Polo Field

Watch this to learn more about Justinian II’s first reign, 685-695 (Eastern Roman History).

In 695, the 35-year-old Isaurian Leontios was emperor being the first ruler of the 22-year anarchy period and to consolidate his rule as he was a usurper with no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty he overthrew by deposing Justinian II, he spared Justinian II’s family members such as his mother Anastasia the wife of the late Constantine IV, although Leontios despite being backed by the aristocracy and Blue faction was never that popular basically because he was a usurper with no legitimate claim to the throne, and an Isaurian in origins in which the Byzantines of Constantinople till this point still saw the Isaurians being the people of the mountains of Southern Asia Minor as still barbaric and primitive, even though Leontios was only Isaurian in blood and was not even born in the mountains of Isauria. As emperor, Leontios decided to avoid making offensive measures against the Arabs which Justinian II did and instead chose to only fight defensive measures against them though the caliph Abd Al-Malik saw this policy of Leontios as a sign of weakness using it to his advantage to launch a naval invasion on Byzantine Carthage in 697, the last piece of land Byzantium still held in North Africa. In response to the Arab invasion of Carthage, Leontios sent an army and the fleet of the Karabasian naval Theme under the command the general John the Patrician to retake Carthage which happened to be successful at first until the Arab reinforcement fleet arrived in 698 defeating the Byzantines, thus Carthage here completely fell to the Arabs ending the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa. The surviving Byzantines together with John retreated to Crete where John was killed when the surviving soldiers mutinied replacing him with Apsimar, a Droungarios or 3rd in command of the Thematic Army who was of Germanic descent as his name suggests; the soldiers too named him as Emperor Tiberius III fearing Leontios would punish them for losing. The army under Tiberius III marched to Constantinople blockading it while in the city another outbreak of the Plague of Justinian from the 6th century occurred and inside the city, the Green faction of the chariot races that never wanted Leontios in power anyway switched their support to Tiberius III opening the gates for him, thus Leontios was overthrown making Tiberius III the second ruler of this 22-year anarchy. Leontios then instead of being executed suffered the same fate as Justinian II who he overthrew 3 years earlier and as Leontios’ nose was mutilated, he was sent into monastery arrest in the capital. As the new emperor, Tiberius III was at least successful in resuming attacks against the Arabs in the east led by his brother Heraclius and in repopulating Cyprus as well with Arab prisoners of war, but the one thing he failed to see was the rising threat of the exiled Justinian II returning. The one thing Tiberius III’s reign would best be known for was the end of Byzantine control over Africa with the loss of Carthage which had been under the Byzantines ever since the conquest of the Vandal Kingdom there in 534 by Emperor Justinian I’s general Belisarius, and at the turn of the 8th century, Byzantine rule over Africa was permanently lost as Tiberius III believed that taking back Carthage and keeping it under Byzantine control was too risky considering it was too far. From 698 onwards, Carthage would be under the rule of the Arabs and from here, they would continue to expand westwards joining forces with the native Moorish (Berber) people who they converted to Islam and from here, they would expand more later crossing the Strait of Gibraltar over to Spain believing it was the easier despite longer way to successfully reach and take over Constantinople.

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Byzantine era Carthage, capital of the Exarchate of Africa, completely lost to the Arabs in 698
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7th century Arab cavalry advance across the deserts of North Africa

Meanwhile, for the past 9 years (695-704), the slit-nosed Justinian II remained in exile in the cold and desolate city of Cherson along the freezing north shore of the Black Sea and here, Justinian II- for this story’s case- was put under house arrest and only allowed to walk only within the city walls once a day though made friends with a local abbot who he told his plans to, which was that of taking back the throne and having revenge on those who wronged him.

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Byzantine ruins of Cherson in the Crimea, Ukraine; exile place Justinian II, 695-704

The local authorities in Cherson soon began to know about Justinian’s true intentions and therefore planned to have him sent back to Constantinople to be tried and executed so in 704, he escaped Cherson in the middle of the night fearing for his life and so he fled west across the strait to the mainland of Caucasian Russia which here was part of the land of the Khazars ruled by their khan Busir and when there, Justinian was received well by Busir who even married off his younger sister to Justinian and when married she was renamed Theodora after the famous wife of Justinian I, again as an act of Justinian II imitating the man he was named after. Both Justinian and Theodora then lived happily in an old Roman mansion given to them along the Black Sea’s northern coast as this was once a Greek and Roman colony, though Busir was soon enough given a bribe by Tiberius III to betray and kill Justinian who was discovered to have fled there. However, Justinian soon enough knew of the plot so instead, he killed the men sent to kill him by strangling them with his own hands and afterwards fled by southwest across the Black Sea to the new land of the Bulgars to seek their alliance leaving his wife behind. On the way to Bulgaria in 705, the ship Justinian was in got caught in a storm, though at least they all survived and arrived safely in Bulgaria, now ruled by Khan Tervel, son of Asparukh who had died back in 700. Justinian II here was able to gain the assistance of Tervel and his Bulgar army in exchange for Justinian paying tribute to him and together they marched south to Constantinople and along the way in Thrace, Justinian and Tervel encountered the 20-year-old Syrian shepherd Konon, who with his family had been relocated by Justinian II there 10 years earlier. Konon here was someone who was willing to use every opportunity to get himself in a position of power, and the right opportunity came for him here when meeting Justinian II who was on his way to take back the throne and here Konon thought of finding a way of getting into the imperial service as a soldier and spy by providing Justinian II and his army with sheep to eat.

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Arabic lamb dish, cooked by Konon for Justinian II

Justinian II here at his tent privately met the young Konon for dinner which Konon prepared himself- for this story’s case- and what was prepared was a lamb dish cooked in the Arabian style with lots of flavorful spices which was a dish from Konon’s native Syria with some influences from the Arabs that had passed there and here Justinian II was greatly impressed not only by Konon’s ability to cook such flavorful food but how he could speak Arabic so fluently and how much he knew the culture and way of thinking of the Arabs. Soon enough, Justinian II together with his Bulgar allies and Konon arrived outside the walls of Constantinople where they camped outside for 3 days as Justinian was denied entry as the people still despised him even after 10 years. After 3 days, Justinian with a few of his men were able to sneak into Constantinople in the middle of the night finding a way up the 4th century Aqueduct of Valens through the waterway and when inside, he climbed down through a building attached to the aqueduct.

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Aqueduct of Valens, Constantinople

The next day, the people were shocked to see the former emperor with his nose cut-off with Bulgar soldiers walking through the city’s streets while Tiberius III after just waking up fled across the Bosporus to the Asian side of Constantinople when hearing Justinian II returned. Now back in power, Justinian II honored his promise to Khan Tervel naming him a Caesar, which now was just an honorary title, while Tervel was the first foreign ruler to receive it, and as Tervel and his army returned to Bulgaria, Justinian II at 36 was crowned again being the 3rd ruler of the anarchy period, and now known as Justinian II Rhinotmetos or “the slit-nosed” in Greek, using a replica of his nose made of gold to cover the cavity where his real nose once was as a way to make it seem he was still in perfect shape.

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Emperor Justinian II in his 2nd reign (705-711) with his golden nose replica

In 706, Tiberius III over in the Asian side of the Bosporus was captured and brought to Justinian II who as usual had Tiberius’ nose cut off and together with the previously deposed Leontios who was dragged out of the monastery, they were both paraded in Constantinople’s streets with their cut-off noses exposed before both were brought to the emperor’s box at the Hippodrome where Justinian II when watching a chariot race used both Leontios and Tiberius III as his footstools with one former emperor’s neck stepped on by a foot Justinian II as a symbol of having conquered both of them, and afterwards both Leontios and Tiberius III were beheaded followed by a purge by Justinian II on all those loyal to both usurpers leading to the deaths of thousands including Tiberius’ brother Heraclius. Konon meanwhile was sent over by Justinian II east to negotiate with the rulers of the small kingdoms of Alania and Lazica over in the Caucasus and also to spy on the Arabs there as Justinian now knew Konon knew the behavior of the Arabs, although Justinian true enough betrayed Konon here stranding him across the Caucasus, however Konon soon managed to return to Byzantine territory by foot crossing the snowy mountains with just snowshoes. Konon would then disappear into the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor for some time now, and in this story’s case he would marry a Greek woman named Maria like in real history, though for this story’s case she would be the daughter of the Theme’s Droungarios and by this point they would have their first child, a daughter named Anna whose real birthdate is unknown but, in this story, she would be born in 708.

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Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetos, 2nd reign

As for Justinian II in his second reign, his full purpose of ruling the empire now would no longer be for growing it but to carry out revenge on all those who wronged and humiliated him before and this is when he would be known as the bloodthirsty madman emperor he is better known as since in his second reign, he put all his energy into purging all those who opposed him and helped overthrow him back in 695, and true enough not a day went by without anyone being arrested or executed, though also in 706 Justinian’s Khazar wife Theodora and their newborn son Tiberius arrived in Constantinople being sent there by the Khazar khan Busir who now gave up the plan of betraying Justinian. Just as he did in his first reign, Justinian II resumed his impulsive style of ruling in his second one that in 708 he launched a campaign against the Bulgars and their Slav allies to gain the lands he gave up to the Bulgars in exchange for returning him to power, thus betraying Tervel who helped take back the throne in 705, though Justinian II and his forces were defeated by the Bulgars forcing him to renew his peace agreement with Tervel. The defeat of the Byzantines to the Bulgars in 708 allowed the Arabs to continue raiding Asia Minor in which in 709 they managed to capture some cities in the Cilicia, the southern coast and go as far deep into Cappadocia too and because of the defeats the Byzantines had suffered, Justinian II in his usual act of vengeance had the commanders he saw responsible for it executed, despite them being capable leaders, thus the empire would lose some of its best military leaders. On the other in 709, Justinian II turned his attention to the remains of Byzantine Italy, particularly Ravenna which he found out was the place that opposed him the most and it was true enough the aristocrats of Ravenna including its bishop that played a major part in overthrowing him back in 695. Justinian II here though succeeded in sending an expedition to Ravenna to round up and arrest all those who conspired against him, afterwards all these people were brought over to Constantinople where Justinian had these aristocrats, true enough his life-long enemies executed right in front of him while the bishop’s eyes were gouged out. Meanwhile many people were already beginning to flee Constantinople in fear of getting killed by the emperor’s orders since soon enough everyone no matter guilty or innocent as long as seen as suspicious by the emperor were put to death or killed in the confusion and because of Justinian II’s tyrannical rule, the colony of Cherson where he was banished to earlier on rose up against him in 710 under the Armenian patrician general Bardanes or Vardan, who Justinian II had just sent there to be in charge of it, and now Bardanes was someone who really desired the throne that back in 695 when Leontios seized power, Bardanes who helped Leontios eyed the throne more than Leontios. As the uprising against Justinian II in Cherson grew even worse when Bardanes allied himself with the Khazars, Justinian II in 711 then sent an army to Cherson to deal with rebellion, but instead the army sent there defected to rebels later on sailing south to Constantinople finding out Justinian II was away as he headed over to the Armeniac Theme to again suppress another rebellion against him by the aristocracy there. With the emperor gone, Bardanes and his rebel forces were let into the city by the people who were tired of Justinian II anyway and Bardanes was proclaimed here as emperor renamed Philippikos while Justinian II never made it back as on December 11 of 711 Justinian II when heading back to Constantinople to counter-attack Philippikos was arrested and beheaded at age 42.

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Tiberius, son of Justinian II at his grandmother Anastasia’s arms is hunted down by the soldiers of Emperor Philippikos, 711

Shortly after, the soldiers of Philippikos hunted down Justinian’s 6-year-old son Tiberius in Constantinople who was hiding in a church with his grandmother, Justinian’s mother Anastasia and when caught, the young Tiberius was hacked to death by the soldiers, thus fully ending the bloodline of Heraclius and the Heraclian Dynasty. Anastasia though as a woman was spared but would never be heard from again, while Justinian’s wife Theodora in this story’s case would return back to her native land of the Khazars, and Justinian’s head was then sent to Rome and Ravenna to be paraded and displayed in public whereas everyone cheered as the evil emperor was dead and although he tried to live up to Justinian I whom he was named after, he was only Justinian II and not the “Second Justinian”. A legacy that Justinian II left behind however was the introduction of the Loros or a long golden embroidered scarf wrapped around the body as the new uniform for Byzantine emperors as previously this kind of outfit was only worn for consuls in the Byzantine senate, but with office of consul now abolished, this uniform became for the emperor’s use only beginning with Justinian II, and would be the uniform for Byzantine emperors till the very end. 

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Empire of the Khazars (purple), early 8th century
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Justinian II makes the Bulgar Khan Tervel a Caesar in Constantinople, 705
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The Loros, new Byzantine imperial uniform introduced by Justinian II

In 711 as well, the same year Justinian II’s rule was finally put to an end with his execution, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate now under its new caliph Al-Walid I was at its height of power as here in 711, the Arab armies from North Africa together with their subjugated local Moorish forces there had finally begun their conquest of Europe by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain easily defeating the weakened Visigoth Kingdom. Previously, the Christian Visigoth Kingdom of Spain that had been around there since the 5th century after taking over Spain from the Western Roman Empire by the late 7th and early 8th century fell into civil war thus further weakening it that when the Arabs finally crossed into Europe through Spain, the Visigoths stood no more chance and in only a few years after 711, the Visigoth Kingdom would meet its end, although remnants of Visigoth Spain would survive as the Christian Kingdom of Asturias in the north formed by the surviving Visigoths and this new kingdom would resist against the expansion of the Arabs before turning the tide of war against them beginning the Christian Reconquista a few centuries later.

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Flag of the Kingdom of Asturias, resistance kingdom of the Visigoths in Northern Spain

The Arabs though would still stop at nothing conquering everything in the name of Islam that in only about 10 years after arriving in Spain, they had already conquered almost the entire Iberian Peninsula including what is now Portugal leaving the Christians including the ever-independent Basque people to the remote corners of Northern Spain and this was not yet the end as the Arabs were also set to conquer the Frankish Kingdom, the predecessor of France up north. In the east meanwhile, the rule of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate had already reached as far as the Sindh region in today’s Pakistan which they had conquered back in 708, thus the rule of the Arabs spanned from the Atlantic Ocean all the way east to the Indus River. Back in Byzantium, the new emperor Philippikos as the 4th ruler of this anarchy period had turned out to not really be an effective ruler as the only thing he did good for his people was finishing off the madman Justinian II but as plainly a general, he had not much experience in politics and at the same time, he as an Armenian was also a believer of the Monothelite doctrine that was condemned as a heresy by Constantine IV back in 680 as the Monothelite faith was stronger with people in the eastern regions of the empire like Armenia. In 712, he renounced the ruling of the 680 Council of Constantinople attempting to restore the Monothelite doctrine of Christ having only one energy, thus Philippikos fired the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Cyrus replacing him with the Monothelite John VI, and here is when the foundations of Iconoclasm as an imperial practice was laid when the emperor had some religious icons in the capital that did not please him removed. For returning the heretical Monothelite doctrine, Philippikos soon enough became hated by his people and opposed by the pope in Rome and because of executing Justinian II, the Bulgar khan Tervel who still had some loyalty to the late emperor struck back and raided into Byzantine Thrace going as far as the Walls of Constantinople. To counter-attack the Bulgars, Philippikos sent the army of the Opsikion Theme right across the sea from Constantinople across the Bosporus to Thrace in order to push back the Bulgars which they were successful at, although when putting too much attention to fighting the Bulgars up north, the Arabs attacked Asia Minor by land again from the east. In 713, the Opsikion army rebelled in Thrace marching straight into Constantinople where the city’s garrison easily opened the gates for them as they and not even Philippikos’ bodyguards had turned out to have no loyalty towards him as he was again another usurper with no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty. The rebelling soldiers then caught Philippikos at the moment he was taking a nap in the imperial palace wherein they dragged him out to the Hippodrome where he was publicly blinded and after that sent to a monastery where he died some months later also in the same year as a result of his injuries from the blinding. With Philippikos deposed in 713, the Opsikion Theme army chose to proclaim Philippikos’ senior secretary Artemios as their new emperor who then was renamed as Emperor Anastasius II thinking he could be easy to manipulate but the Opsikion army here was wrong as true enough he did not want to be a puppet and so he executed the soldiers who plotted to overthrow Philippikos as a way of installing discipline. Anastasius II was then the 5th ruler of the anarchy period and it was in his reign in 713 when Artavasdos first comes into the picture whereas here he was 26 at this point and already a highly skilled soldier and for his skills, Anastasius II appointed Artavasdos as the Strategos or commanding general of the Armeniac Theme which he came from. In 714, the Arabs continuing their attacks penetrating as far as the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor and soon enough they had blockaded the coastline of Asia Minor with their fleet and in response to the attacks of the Arabs, Anastasius II ordered that the land and sea walls of Constantinople be repaired fearing a possible siege of the city. At the same time, Anastasius II also ordered that the food supply of Constantinople be restocked to last at least 3 years, had the fleet rebuilt, and in 715 cancelled the Monothelite decree Philippikos had issued returning to Orthodoxy again by deposing the Monothelite patriarch John VI and replacing him with the Orthodox Germanus I. Konon then comes back again to the picture in 715 when Anastasius II appointed him to be the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme which he now settled in seeing that Konon possessed a lot of military skill and afterwards Konon was sent east to surprise attack the Arabs in Syria as here the caliph Al-Walid died as well which Anastasius saw as an opportunity to resume the attacks on the Arabs. Anastasius II too sent a fleet to come to the defense of Rhodes in case the Arabs would attack it but here the same Opsikion army troops that put Anastasius in power 2 years earlier felt betrayed by him thinking he sent them there to die and so they mutinied, gave up on the mission, and returned to the Opsikion Theme. The army though could not find the right person to name as their new emperor until finding an unlikely random tax collector of low birth who they elected as emperor although he was unwilling and fled to the woods to hide but was soon enough found hours later and had no choice but to be proclaimed as Emperor Theodosius III being the 6th and last ruler of the anarchy period. Constantinople was then put under siege for the next 6 months which later resulted in Theodosius III victorious and Anastasius II fleeing across the Bosporus to the city of Nicaea where he was later found in 716 and forced to abdicate and retire peacefully as a monk in Thessaloniki as Theodosius being a merciful and reluctant ruler wanted to avoid any form of bloodshed. The Umayyad Arab forces meanwhile under the command of their general Maslama, brother of the new caliph Suleiman which were still in Asia Minor in 716 laid siege to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion where the Theme’s Strategos Konon with his wife Maria and daughter Anna were in after he just returned from his campaign in Syria.

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Prince Masalama, general of the Umayyad forces

Konon however knowing the Arab language convinced Maslama and his forces to leave by promising them he would be their ally if he would take the throne from Theodosius III as the fact that Theodosius was a weak and reluctant emperor gave Konon now the right opportunity to fulfill his dream of taking over the throne. In late 716, Konon had found common ground with the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos Artavasdos who also intended to overthrow Theodosius III and here in late 716, Konon proclaimed himself emperor when meeting up with Artavasdos on the way to Constantinople. Theodosius III meanwhile knowing the Arabs would soon besiege Constantinople renewed Byzantium’s alliance with the Bulgar khan Tervel though at the same time in early 717, Konon and Artavasdos when arriving in the city of Nicomedia very close to Constantinople captured Theodosius’ son also named Theodosius who was however spared and in so little time, the rebelling armies of the Armeniac and Anatolic Themes arrived in Constantinople ready to besiege it again. Theodosius III however did not want another fight and not wanting to be emperor anyway, he abdicated in favor of Konon and retired to become a monk while here on March 25 of 717, Konon was no longer Konon but now renamed as Emperor Leo III proclaiming an end to the 22-year anarchy. 

22 year anarchy
The 6 emperors of the Byzantine 22-year-Anarchy (695-717)- Leontios (top-left, r. 695-698), Tiberius III (top-middle, r. 698-705), Justinian II Rhinotmetos (top-right, r. 705-711), Philippikos Bardanes (bottom-left, r. 711-713), Anastasius II (bottom-middle, r. 713-715), Theodosius III (bottom-right, r. 715-717), art by Powee Celdran, images recreated from their respective coins 
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Umayyad Caliphate forces arrive and conquer Visigoth Spain, 711
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Map of the Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, 710s

The Siege of Constantinople, 717-718 “The Battle for the Fate of Europe”

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On March 25 of 717, Konon the simple Syrian shepherd boy with a cunning mind and deep knowledge of the Arab culture was now the emperor of the Byzantine Empire Leo III the Isaurian, except the empire he now came to rule was a shell of its former self as in 717, Byzantium only controlled slightly more than half of Asia Minor, only Eastern Thrace in the Balkans, less than half of Greece, and in Italy only Sicily, the southern regions, Rome, Ravenna, and the Istrian Peninsula (part of today’s Croatia), although at least all the Aegean Islands together with Sardinia and Corsica and the remote colony of Cherson north of the Black Sea were still Byzantine as the Lombards occupied most Italy and the Slavs occupying what was once the Byzantine Balkans, and the rest of course having already fallen to the Arabs. Here in 717, Konon now as Leo III was emperor at 32 with long curly dark brown hair, a short beard, and a short and stocky built while Artavasdos here hitting the age of 30 looked somewhat like Leo except much taller and thinner with long black hair and green eyes and at the same time too, Leo’s wife Maria and daughter Anna had arrived in Constantinople settling themselves in the imperial palace.

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Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, aka Konon (r. 717-741), founder of the Isaurian Dynasty

Leo not wanting to be another usurper that would easily be overthrown possibly 2 years later again as he had literally no ties to the previous Heraclian Dynasty or any dynasty before it here promised Atavasdos to marry off Anna despite being 21 years younger than Artavasdos which was a way to establish a new dynasty and in addition to this, Leo even promised that if ever he died Artavasdos as his son-in-law would immediately succeed him to the throne as Leo had no sons but just about a month later in this story’s case, Maria happened to be pregnant which gave some joy to Leo and a bit of a sense of uneasiness for Artavasdos especially if Maria were to give birth to a son. The moment Leo III came to power, he immediately broke his alliance with the Umayyad Caliphate as he never wanted to ally with them anyway only pretending to make an alliance to get them to leave so instead, he chose the same old Bulgar khan Tervel up north who he met back in 705 with Justinian II as his ally, renewing the alliance of Theodosius III. The Bulgars meanwhile still hated the Byzantines for various reasons but hated the Arabs even more and so for the sake of keeping the new Bulgarian state alive in order to not fall to Arabs knowing that the Arabs would stop at nothing to conquer, Tervel decided to ally with the Byzantines having the Umayyad Arabs as their common enemy, although Leo III did not meet Tervel yet personally instead only exchanging letters with each other.

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Tervel, Khan of the Bulgars (r. 700-721)

Over in Damascus, the new caliph Suleiman who had succeeded his brother Al-Walid in 715 soon enough got word that Leo betrayed his promise of allying with them when a letter from Leo reached him saying he had never wanted their help anyway and only for them to leave but this here totally enraged Suleiman making him send an army of 80,000 men from all parts of the Umayyad Caliphate from North Africa to Syria, from the Arabian Desert to Central Asia together with a fleet of 1,800 ships to directly attack Constantinople under the command of again his brother Maslama intending to finally carry out the ultimate dream of the Umayyads. In July of 717, Leo III together with Artavasdos in this story’s case had already completely fortified Constantinople’s land and sea walls stationing a sufficient number of troops and by August, the Arabs now crossing the Dardanelles strait into Thrace arriving in Europe built a temporary stone wall some kilometers away from the 5th century land walls of Constantinople to guard their Thracian camp and block all reinforcements coming for the Byzantines while the fleet later sailed directly into the Marmara Sea while Leo III from the rooftop of the imperial palace saw the Arab army and fleet miles away. Now to completely seal off the city’s harbor or Golden Horn from the attack of the Arab navy, Leo III had a large chain as long as 20m placed on opposite ends of the harbor’s entrances, one side being the main city and the other side being the Galata District. The situation now seemed hopeless for the Byzantines as the 22 years of anarchy, riots, and executions issued by Justinian II depopulated the capital and its army, therefore the walls which Anastasius II luckily repaired was the city’s only hope for survival and if not for that, Byzantium would soon enough already end. However, when all hope seemed to be lost, a young patrician eunuch working in the imperial court named Eutychius– in this story’s case- presented to Leo the empire’s state secret, the superweapon of Greek Fire in which here only 3 ships were equipped with it, and this moment, the procedure of operating the weapon was given to Leo III for his and the operating team of the navy’s eyes only.         

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The Byzantine Empire in 717 (purple)
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The chain at the Golden Horn, installed by Leo III
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The land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by Powee Celdran

The “Battle for the Fate of Europe” then began when the Arab fleet attacked Constantinople from the sea while the army of 80,000 attacked by land completely surrounding the city to completely block it off from any reinforcements or food supply but luckily, the people of Constantinople had a food supply that could last for 3 years. The people inside the city were now all fearing the worst and so Leo III despite not wanting to lay his eyes on religious icons encouraged the people including soldiers to all rally under them to boost their morale as here too, with a lack of soldiers, civilians whether women or children including the elderly and monks were all encouraged to defend the walls. The first wave of attack came from the Arab fleet attacking south from the Marmara, but before arriving at the entrance to the city’s harbor, Leo III deployed the 3 large ships with Greek Fire in it right against the advancing Arab fleet which at the end totally burned down 20 of the Arab supply ships while its sailors either died burning or jumped into the water and drowned to death at the frightening sight of liquid fire emitted from a large brass gun- an ancient version of a flamethrower. Not a lot of the Arab ships though were destroyed but after seeing 20 of their ships burned by a kind of flame never seen before, the sailors decided to just give up, therefore the ships instead docked outside the Galata District unloading troops that laid siege to the walls.

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Umayyad forces at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

The main army however was still over in Thrace while their general Maslama chose to stay there camped outside Constantinople the whole time believing they will win this way as back in previous Arab siege from 674 to 678, the Arabs using the strategy of launching minor attacks and retreating back to their bases in Asia Minor when winter came proved unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of a lot of men. As the months passed and autumn came, the Arabs happened to run low in their food supply as there were too many of them sent on this expedition while Maslama did not expect it to last this long, therefore a group of the Arab army formed a foraging party that pillaged the countryside of Thrace to find food whether grain from the farms or mushrooms from the woodland areas. At this point when a foraging party of 4,000 Arabs searched the countryside of Thrace for food, the Bulgar cavalry army of Tervel finally came to the aid of the Byzantines and here they ambushed and completely wiped out the foraging Arabs, afterwards returning back north for the meantime. Leo III on the hand came up with the strategy of delaying the siege for the attacking Arabs since he knew winter would come soon and knowing the Arabs well, he knew that winter was their ultimate weakness as they came from the southern deserts where snow did not exist and true enough when the winter of 717-718 came, it was an exceptionally harsh one even for the Byzantines. The winter then happened to go on for 3 months with the snow covering the ground the entire time disabling the Arabs to continue attacking Constantinople’s walls but allowing the Byzantines to return to rebuilding their defences. As the months passed, the Arabs soon enough ran out food supply considering that their army was still large in number that the Arab troops had to resort to first eating their horses and camels as well as weeds, tree barks, leaves, and mushroom in which some were poisonous thus killing them. The famine soon enough grew worse as the winter passed that it was even reported that the Arab soldiers had to resort to cannibalism eating the flesh of their fellow fallen soldiers that had died either from battle, the cold of winter, or from starvation, and to mask the taste of human flesh, the Arabs too had to go as far as coating the human flesh they ate with their own shit. With the increase of the death toll in the Arab army rising each day, burying their fallen soldiers became a problem so the Arabs too had no choice but to eat their dead soldiers. At the same time too as the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople, the caliph Suleiman had also died in the town of Dabiq in Syria in September of 717 and was succeeded by Caliph Umar II who was not related to him but still ruling as part of the Umayyad Dynasty and when the spring of 718 came, the new caliph sent a reinforcement army and a fleet from Egypt making the situation for the Arabs improve by a bit. The sailors in the Arab reinforcement fleet however were mostly Christians as the Muslim sailors were already used in the first wave and being Christians, they immediately switched sides joining forces with the Byzantine navy thus turning the tide against the Arab fleet which was soon enough outnumbered. Here also in the spring of 718, Leo III had his ships with Greek Fire again attack the Arab ships blockading the Bosporus Strait from the north and with the power of Greek Fire, the entire Arab fleet blockading the Bosporus was destroyed.

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Emperor Leo III on his ship at the 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

In this story’s case, Leo III together with Artavasdos and Eutychius were on one of the ships equipped with Greek Fire and as Leo kept ordering the weapon to nonstop shoot out fire, he saw for himself that the weapon had a flaw too which was that if it was overused, it could overheat and possibly explode or shoot fire back at them, though the other flaw was that it was unwieldy as the gun was too heavy and its range for shooting fire was only a few meters. In this story’s case too, after the Arab fleet blocking off the Bosporus was destroyed, Leo together with Artavasdos got off in the Asian side across the Bosporus leading a cavalry charge themselves against the Arab reinforcement army there and by summoning the nearby Opsikion Theme’s army to march there, they both succeeded in totally decimating the 20,000 Arab reinforcements by attacking from both sides trapping them. Across the Bosporus in Thrace meanwhile, the now over exhausted remnants of the Arab army that survived the winter were still camped there and by the time the Bulgar cavalry arrived again this time with Khan Tervel personally leading them, the Arabs with no more strength stood no chance and a large number of them were massacred.

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Map of the 717-718 Arab Siege of Constantinople
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab ships, 718
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Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy
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Bulgar army massacres the Umayyad Arabs outside Constantinople during the winter of 717-718

The siege then continued to go on for a bit more than a year until August of 718 when Maslama who was still alive got word from the caliph Umar II himself to immediately abandon the siege as if it went on, then they would lose more men therefore creating a shortage of troops in the caliphate. In over a year, about 30,000 Arab soldiers had died though mostly from the winter and from the Bulgars as the Byzantines forces true enough did not do much of the fighting. While the Arabs retreated back to their ships, the last remnants of them in Thrace were again massacred by Tervel’s Bulgars. Maslama then led the army in their retreat to Syria and along the way, a storm in the Marmara destroyed a large portion of the retreating Arab fleet while the rest were also destroyed by the larger Byzantine ships pursuing them that at the end, only 5 of the 1,800 ships sent to Constantinople made it back safely to Syria. All thanks to Greek Fire, a brutal winter, the assistance of the Bulgars, and a mass defection of the Arab navy, the Byzantine Empire survived the event that could have brought about their end and with the Byzantine victory, it was not only them that was saved, but the rest of Europe as well, as if the Arabs managed to defeat the Byzantines here, then the way for them to conquer the rest of Europe would be clear. As for the Arabs, this attack on Constantinople was completely fruitless that this defeat made them swear to never attack Constantinople again and true enough this would be the last time the Arabs would attack Constantinople with full force and at the same time, this defeat would totally weaken the prestige of the powerful Umayyad Caliphate that was still at its greatest territorial extent here. Though Constantinople was spared once more, the wars between Byzantium and the Arabs was not yet over and as emperor, Leo III from here on would focus his policy on continuing the attacks on the Arabs to weaken them but first it was time for him to consolidate his rule. However, for saving the Byzantine Empire from ultimate destruction, Leo III at only 33 was hailed as a national hero and the biggest feat here was that he went from a simple shepherd boy to the savior of the empire.

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Tervel and his Bulgar army’s final attack on the Arab forces outside Constantinople, 718

Watch this to learn more about the 717-718 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople (Eastern Roman History).


The Reign of Leo III and Iconoclasm (718-741)         

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Having saved Byzantium from ultimate destruction, Leo III now in 718 focused on rebuilding the severely damaged empire he inherited and luckily for Leo III, he could now finally establish his own dynasty thus ending all the instability Byzantium faced as here too in 718, his wife Maria gave birth to a son who was named Constantine after the emperor Constantinople was named after, Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), the founder of the Byzantine Empire. With the birth of the boy Constantine, Artavasdos who was still in Constantinople here was deeply upset as he thought the throne would pass to him, but being loyal to Leo III he hid his true feelings and now after the siege was over, Leo III thanking Artavasdos for his part in helping him come to power and successfully defending Constantinople was awarded the title and position of Kouropalates which was basically the head of the imperial palace, although Artavasdos also retained his position as the Strategos of the Armeniac Theme wherein he would reside in its capital of Amasea for most of Leo III’s reign.

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Leo III the Isaurian

Meanwhile over in Byzantine Sicily in 718 as the siege was still happening, some fake news had reached there saying that Constantinople had fallen to the Arabs and in the panic there, the people named a local government official there named as Basil as their emperor as they thought there was no more emperor, but when Leo III in Constantinople got word of this, he sent a part of the army to Sicily to crush this rebellion not wanting the previous anarchy period to repeat itself. When the army arrived in Sicily telling everyone Constantinople was still theirs and that they had an emperor, the people of Sicily still being loyal surrendered the usurper Basil who was then executed right there while his head and hands were sent to Leo III. Back in Constantinople later on in 718 a few months after young Constantine was born, he was baptized by the same patriarch Germanus I who also survived the siege and in attendance were both his parents, older sister Anna, and Artavasdos who was soon to marry her, and here a very bizarre and apocryphal incident happened which was although written by sources hostile to Leo III and his son Constantine saying that Constantine as a baby took a shit on the water he was being baptized in, which here in this story’s case is true hence the origin of the nickname he would be known as later being Kopronymos meaning “shit-named” in Greek. Just a year later in 719, the ex-emperor Anastasius II came out of his monastery in Thessaloniki intent on taking back the Byzantine throne from Leo III therefore marching east to Constantinople supported by the Bulgars of Tervel who betrayed Leo III switching support to Anastasius II. In response to this, Leo III personally led the army west where he confronted the small army of Anastasius II defeating it and having the ex-emperor executed while the Bulgars retreated back north to their homeland. Leo III here by executing Anastasius II made his intention plain and simple that he was there to stay and establish a dynasty to make sure the 22-year anarchy period was no longer to last and to further make sure he was there to stay in power till death, he focused on reforming the empire, first of all by reducing the power of the Themes’ Strategos (plural: Strategoi) as he knew by holding so much power as he had seen it before with himself as a Strategos and with the Opsikion Theme overthrowing both Philippikos and Anastasius II that with this much power, an emperor could be easily overthrown and part of his reforms in the Thematic System was dividing the Karabasian naval Theme creating a new naval Theme in charge of the entire Aegean Sea with the other half of the Karabasian. In the meantime, his wife Maria gave birth to two more daughters after Constantine, the first one being Irene who in this story would be born in 720 and the next one Kosmo born in 721. Meanwhile in 720, two important events happened first was the wedding of the now 33-year-old Artavasdos to the 12-year-old Anna in Constantinople- although for this story’s case as in real history their marriage possibly happened some time earlier possibly 717- but here too in this case like in real history, Leo III made his 2-year-old son Constantine co-emperor in 720 to fully secure his dynasty, though betraying Artavasdos in the process who was promised earlier by Leo to succeed him. In the ceremony of young Constantine being crowned as his father’s co-emperor, Artavasdos as Mario put it pulled out a dagger from his sleeve although he quickly left the throne room without saying anything hiding his true feeling of being cheated. Leo III then moved to making one of his greatest achievements in his reign which was a code of laws known as the Ecloga, a continuation of Emperor Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis from the 6th century.

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Leo III’s Ecloga

The legal reforms in Leo III’s Ecloga was envisioned to make Byzantium a better place to live in for all classes after all the years of war and instability and these reforms included the abolition of paying the increasingly high taxes the rich had hated and also the abolition of serfs in the empire who were then turned into landowning peasants. Another major change in Leo III’s Ecloga was in criminal law with the discontinuation of the practice of cutting off noses to prevent someone from taking back the throne as Leo saw that this practice was just silly as Justinian II in 705 came back to power anyway despite his nose being cut-off, instead Leo III replaced this punishment with blinding as this would surely disable someone from coming back to power while the death penalty was a bit too severe. True enough in the entire history of Byzantium later on, no emperor would return to power blind except for one later on in the early 13th century.          

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Emperor Leo III (left) with his son and co-emperor Constantine V (right)

The process in creating the Ecloga took several years and only in 726 was it completely finished as Leo III had to make sure these laws would work but the one particular thing Leo added here was his own stance on the excessive use of icons in the empire, and although he was not so much a religious person, he strongly believed that what he believed was for the good of the whole empire. Leo originally as Konon from the eastern provinces of Byzantium lived among Monophysite and Monothelite Christians and had also came into contact with Muslims and Jews countless times which definitely influenced him in being not a fan of icons as Jews and Muslims did not believe in worshiping God through images. These Christians in the east believing Christ was only divine could not be seen as a human as well as the Virgin Mary and saints, and seeing Christ as only God, there was no way God could be visualized and Leo despite being Orthodox leaned heavily towards the beliefs of the eastern Christians. Things for the Byzantines of the western parts including Constantinople, Thrace, Western Asia Minor, Greece, the remains of the Balkans, and the remains of Italy however were different as icon painting and veneration became a very sacred tradition as there many people were as descendants of the Greeks and Romans kept with them the old Pagan tradition of using images to worship which from statues of the old gods like Zeus and Athena turned into painted images of saints.

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Early-Byzantine era religious icon

What really disgusted Leo on the excessive use of icons among the people of Constantinople was how they used icons for everything even as godparents in the baptisms of their children and Leo as a strong believer of the 2nd Commandment Thou shall have no other gods before me had come to believe that this practice of icon veneration was already like Idolatry or worshiping other gods, therefore sinful. Back in 725 before the Ecloga was completed, Leo III made a public speech in the Hippodrome against the excessive use of icons warning people that they were offending God that way, although many here did not take what he said seriously and Leo though did not punish them too as he only wanted to warn them. Now in 726, the same year the Ecloga was finished, the unexpected happened in the Aegean Sea when the underwater volcano at the island of Thera (today’s Santorini) erupted spewing an ash cloud so high that it could be seen all the way from Constantinople and Leo III again at the rooftop of the imperial palace where he saw the Arab invasion in 717 this time seeing the ash cloud knew that enough was enough on the icons as God was definitely punishing them for their excessive use on them. For the entire 8th century so far and the 7th century before it, Byzantium faced nothing but military defeats, plague, depopulation, political instability, civil wars, and now a massive volcano eruption and here the superstitious Leo III had to find something to blame for all these setbacks and of course what he blamed it all on was his people’s excessive use on icons. Getting word soon enough that this massive eruption came from Thera, Leo III seeing this as the last straw decided to carry out his first public act against icons and so here, he ordered the large mosaic of Christ above the gate of the imperial palace or Chalke Gate removed, which was a mosaic made back in the 6th century to celebrate the victories of Justinian I.

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The Chalke Gate at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople

In this story’s case, Artavasdos in an act of loyalty to Leo III as his partner in action and the head of the palace being present in Constantinople here ordered the palace guards to take down the mosaic, although Artavasdos here deep inside did not want to carry out the job as he was married to someone who highly valued icons, the emperor’s daughter Anna wherein despite their major age gap, they were having a happy marriage. Here in 726, Anna was already a very pretty grown woman at 18 with long straight black hair, a slim built, and not very tall in height and at only 18, she already had her first son with Artavasdos which was Niketas, though in the past years for this story’s case, she busied herself in pursuing an artistic and scholarly career in painting icons as well as playing music and studying the history and politics of the empire. Anna was present at a corner of the imperial palace complex near the Chalke gate and seeing the mosaic taken down by no other than her husband truly broke her heart as she lived to make beautiful icons, although she did not fight back by running to her husband or the soldiers asking them to stop, instead she left the scene and went to her mother crying. Maria here at her room in the palace told Anna that she too despite being loyal to her husband Leo III was not for the destruction of icons and so she asked Anna to gather a number of women to fight back.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm from the 9th century Chludov Psalter

Most men were fine with the destruction of the mosaic of Christ at the Chalke Gate but the women were upset with it, and as it would turn out later on, women had valued icons a lot more than men therefore strongly condemning what would be Leo III’s Iconoclast policy and so here in this story’s case as Mario put it, Anna ordered some local women of Constantinople who were upset with the destruction of the Chalke Gate mosaic to kill the palace guard officer in charge of tearing down the mosaic. Like in real history, the officer in charge of taking down the mosaic was hacked to death by a group of angry women and following this, riots mostly led by women broke out all over Constantinople lasting for the next few years although intermittently. It was not only in Constantinople though where people opposed the first stage of destroying icons as in 727, the fleet in the Aegean Sea mostly made up of Western Greek sailors that highly valued icons mutinied against Leo III, although their small-scale rebellion was easily crushed where in this story’s case, Leo sent Artavasdos to mercilessly crush it. The uprisings in the empire over the first wave of the confiscations and destruction of icons grew worse over the next years that in 730, Leo III after being convinced by eastern bishops who strongly opposed icons, finally had no choice but to declare a general ban on icons making Iconoclasm or the “destruction of icons” a law in the Ecloga. To fully make Iconoclasm a law, the Church of Constantinople had to be in line with it too, although the Patriarch of Constantinople Germanus I who had been patriarch since 715 did not agree to destroying icons so here in 730 he resigned and was then replaced by the Iconoclast Anastasios who Leo III appointed, thus Iconoclasm was in full effect with the Church now supporting it. With Iconoclasm now a law, all icons were no matter where in the empire and how valuable were to be confiscated by imperial soldiers and to be destroyed either by being smashed or burned, while those caught holding icons were to be punished severely by getting whipped, and for those who restored broken icons or were caught painting icons were to get their hands burned. At this point though, there was still no death penalty on those who supported icons better known as the Iconodules as the laws of Iconoclasm went primarily against religious icons and not people as the icons were seen as the cause of Byzantium’s failures. A large number of monks and artists who restored icons soon feared for their lives in Constantinople or Asia Minor that a lot fled in large groups to Byzantine Greece or Italy where the imperial authorities weren’t as severe in punishing those who supported icons and Italy on the other hand would be a haven for them, especially in Rome which here was still under Byzantine rule but its autonomous ruler being the pope as usual in wanting to assert Rome’s independence from Constantinople welcomed those who fled Constantinople and the east.     

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Eruption of the Thera Island Volcano in the Aegean Sea, 726
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Destruction of the mosaic at the Chalke Gate under Leo III, 726

As the Byzantines in the 720s had been in no large conflict with the Arabs, Leo III could therefore put all his attention in cracking down on religious icons in the empire but if the conflict did not come from the Arabs, it came from the people of Italy who highly valued icon veneration as a sacred tradition.

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Pope St. Gregory II, Patriarch of Rome (715-731)

First of all, in 726 when Iconoclasm was first instituted by Leo III, the people of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna which was still around here encouraged by the pope Gregory II rebelled in large numbers with such violence that the Exarch of Ravenna Paul was killed when crushing the riots. To finish off the unrest in Italy, Leo III in 727 appointed the same patrician eunuch Eutychius who helped him defend Constantinople from 717-718 against the Arabs as the new Exarch of Ravenna sending him to Italy where he first arrived in still Byzantine held Naples. Eutychius’ mission in Italy was also to find a way to remove the authority of Pope Gregory IIwho Leo III saw as a threat to his power as the pope being from the west was a strong icon supporter. Most of Italy here was now part of the Lombard Kingdom of its ambitious king Liutprand and with the Lombards being Christian, the pope was more willing to ally with them rather than following orders from the Byzantine emperor who was though in charge of Rome, and with Eutychius as the new exarch, he offered bribes to Liutprand to give up his alliance with the pope which was successful.

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King Liutprand of the Lombards of Italy (r. 712-744)

In 730, a usurper in Italy named Petasius based in the area of Umbria near Rome rose up against Leo III proclaiming himself emperor and when hearing of Petasius’ rebellion, Eutychius immediately rushed south to deal with it wherein he managed to kill Petasius in battle. On the other hand, in 730 as well, another rebellion against Byzantine rule in Italy broke out again over the ban on icons and this one happened in the Venetian Lagoon, the now growing community by the Adriatic Sea founded back in the 5th century from mainland Roman Italians escaping the Huns. Here, the Venetian people from the community of the lagoon in rebellion against the emperor proclaimed their community’s leader or Dux Ursus known as “Orso Ipato”in Italian as their independent ruler or Doge, thus the Venetian Lagoon here separated from the Byzantine Empire giving birth now to the Republic of Venice, which would be both a strong ally and a bitter enemy to Byzantium in the next centuries to come.

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Orso Ipato, First Doge of the Republic of Venice

Although wanting to be independent from Byzantium, Orso Ipato still wanted to maintain peaceful relations with Leo III’s Byzantium agreeing to provide the empire ships as an ally as long as they kept their independence and because of this, Leo III acknowledged the Venetian’s independence. Pope Gregory II meanwhile continued to strongly oppose Leo III’s Iconoclasm by encouraging revolts against imperial rule and writing letters to Leo III condemning Iconoclasm and in response to this, Leo also in 730 doing as Emperor Constans II did back in 653 when arresting Pope Martin I, also sent some soldiers from Constantinople to Rome to arrest Gregory II but due to a storm, the ship was unable to cross the Adriatic Sea and in early 731, Gregory II died before he could be arrested. Following Gregory II’s death, Gregory III was elected as the new pope and he too opposed Leo III’s Iconoclasm excommunicating all those in Italy who destroyed icons, though Leo III gave up his plans in arresting the pope seeing it was useless, instead he later put the Church dioceses of Sicily and the remains of the Byzantine Balkans under the Patriarch of Constantinople and not the Patriarch of Rome or the pope, thus replacing their bishops with those under Constantinople and here is where the soon-to-be schism between the Churches of Constantinople and Rome would begin.

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Map of 8th century Italy- Byzantine territory (orange), Lombard territory (blue)

           

In the early 730s, the Byzantines again did not get into much conflict with the Umayyad Arabs in the east as at this point, the Arabs focused more in fighting against India in the east, the Frankish Kingdom in the west, and the Khazars in the north found in the Caucasus area. In 732, the Khazar khan Bihar, son of the khan Busir who’s sister earlier on married Justinian II made an alliance with Leo III’s Byzantium and to fully seal it, Bihar sent his daughter Tzitzak to Constantinople to marry Leo III’s son Constantine who here was already 14 and quite overweight but already a learned scholar despite actually hating scholars and monks, though the young Constantine was also unstable and childish in personality- in this story’s case- but most importantly he inherited his father’s extreme disgust for icons which Constantine knowing theology more than his father believed too that God could not be painted as a human. Constantine too was believed to be a bisexual which he is in this story but when seeing the Khazar princess Tzitzak who here was 4 years older than him, he was struck by her exotic oriental beauty having long black hair, fair skin, and gray eyes.

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Khazar women’s fashion sample

In this story’s case, Tzitzak came to Constantinople in her native dress decorated with tons of gold and silver scales as well as headdress full of jewelry and not speaking any Greek, therefore having an interpreter with her and to all the people of Constantinople, her appearance totally left everyone questioning it, although this was not the first time an emperor would marry a Khazar woman as Justinian II’s wife Theodora was a Khazar although when she arrived in Constantinople in 706, Theodora was already dressed in Byzantine robes. What was particularly intriguing to those who saw Tzitzak up close was the tattoos seen around her upper-body as was a nomadic Khazar custom and the when taking a good look at Tzitzak privately in the palace’s baths to see if she was healthy which she seemed to be, Maria was shocked to see all the tattoos on Tzitzak’s body but still approved of her well-behaved personality anyway, and later when Constantine came to see her, he was surprised to see the amount of tattoos when removing her dress, but for Constantine he’d rather have an exotic foreign wife than a Byzantine woman who he found boring and conservative in dress and appearance. Tzitzak was then baptized and renamed to the Greek Irene (although would be known as Tzitzak in this story) and after being baptized she would marry young Constantine, then in the next years she would have to learn Greek which now completely took over Latin as the empire’s language.

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Sample Khazar women’s tattoos, from @laura.petresc on IG

It also happened in 732 when the Umayyad Arab forces from Spain invaded the Frankish Kingdom but suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Tours to the Frankish army under their general Charles Martel thus putting a full stop to the Arabs’ advancement into Europe. As for Artavasdos, still the Armeniac Theme’s Strategos with Anna would meanwhile remain in the Armeniac Theme’s capital of Amasea where they would have more children including another son named Nikephoros all while Anna being away from Constantinople for this story’s case would continue her art projects in painting icons away from her father’s eyes, though Artavasdos would see it but not react to it anyway as he still respected whatever his wife did being happily married to her. The 730s meanwhile was not a much recorded part of Leo III’s reign and so here on a few occasions, Artavasdos and Anna with their children would travel to Constantinople for some family functions wherein for this story Leo himself would cook the flavorful Arabic food he grew up with for his family this time, although in this story’s case nothing would go that pleasantly as envy and distrust would start erupting between family members especially between Anna and her father over their views on the use of icons, Constantine and Anna as Constantine would soon grow more and more envious of his older sister as she was more liked and got more praised and attention for her art and literary works while Constantine did not despite him also doing them, but the bigger hatred was of course between Artavasdos and Constantine as Artavasdos still felt betrayed by Constantine’s birth.

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Arabic food cooked by Leo III

Artavasdos when in Constantinople would try to do whatever it took to get rid of the lazy and arrogant young Constantine that Artavasdos when seeing him would mockingly call Constantine “Kopronymos” remembering the incident of Constantine as a baby shitting on the baptismal water thus angering Constantine and at one point, he intentionally pushed Constantine in the imperial palace’s halls making it look like it was an accident and another time, as Mario added Artavasdos would accuse Constantine of stealing his jewelry telling it to Leo III himself except Leo here refused to believe it seeing his son would not do such a thing. Meanwhile, Leo III’s war on icons was still brewing stronger especially in Constantinople that not a day would go by with soldiers looting churches to confiscate icons and bonfires in almost every square of the city wherein icons were burned much like in Nazi Germany where books were burned in bonfires, while Leo III too would have the previous coins of Justinian II with Christ’s image that were still around melted down to make new coins. When in Constantinople seeing icons burned in these bonfires, Anna had enough of her father’s useless and superstitious policy of destroying icons as Anna being a more educated person knew the icons had nothing to do with the empire’s setbacks.

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Sample image of faces damaged by Iconoclasm (not Byzantine)

Here in 735 for this story’s case, Anna encouraged by her mother Maria had decided to save icons from destruction, thus at the middle of the night she with a group of local women from Constantinople, the same ones who killed the palace guard officer back in 726 would horde the undestroyed or even broken icons while the city guards were asleep and would hide them all in the underground 5th century Cistern of Theodosius which they would use as their base wherein the women would restore icons at midnight. Anna had also come up with a plan for the remaining people who owned icons which was to hide them under their clothes, which is what most monks and nuns did when fleeing to Italy in order to not get caught possessing illegal icons. Meanwhile, not all religious icons could be restored since a lot which were already painted in the walls of churches or in mosaics were damaged in a way that their faces were removed leaving an empty blank spot and restoring them would definitely lead to being arrested at the spot. While in the Armeniac Theme, Anna would also travel to Cappadocia, the perfect place to hide icons especially in the deep and labyrinthian cave systems there wherein people actually lived and there, the people in which most were still for icons would restore them there or even make new ones.           

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Battle of Tours, 732- Charles Martel and the Frankish army defeat the Umayyad forces
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Amasea, Capital of the Armeniac Theme in Asia Minor
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Cistern of Theodosius in Constantinople, secret base of Anna’s resistance against Iconoclasm
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Cave systems of Cappadocia
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Destruction and confiscation of icons under Leo III

The secret resistance movement led by Anna in this story’s case would soon grow larger with more people joining it for the sake of restoring valuable icons that artists worked so hard to make, though neither Leo III nor Constantine nor even Artavasdos knew of Anna’s movement although Artavasdos and Anna’s sons Niketas and Nikephoros soon will and would join their mother’s cause against their grandfather. Now on the other hand, the Arabs won a major victory over the Khazars in 737, thus the Arab forces resumed their raids into Asia Minor attacking in two sides although never intending to attack Constantinople again after the failure of 718. Back in Constantinople, Constantine by here was now no longer a child but in mentality still was especially in how he envied his older sister Anna as she got more attention than him by the palace officials and the people of Constantinople. As an Iconoclast and artist at the same time, Constantine in this story’s case developed his own simplistic style of art mostly consisting of symmetrical crucifixes with no images while Anna made very intricate icons or art depicting nature which her brother and father definitely saw as it had no religious images but Constantine surely envied his older sister’s more superior style in art that pleased a lot of people more than with his work.

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Playing music in the Byzantine era

Constantine and Anna too were musicians skilled in playing the lyre although the people cheered more for Anna who sang with a very excellent voice again fuelling Constantine’s envy and hate towards her. Now in personalities they were so far apart as Anna was a serious and mature person while Constantine was impulsive and immature and Anna being calm as usual would often remind him to stop envying as not everything is a competition and scoring points do not matter although Constantine and Anna kept quarrelling nonstop to the point of slapping each other. Constantine could still not get over Anna so one day in 740- in this story’s case- after drinking at a tavern, he gathered a group of thugs from the tavern to locate Anna’s base as Anna was back in the Armeniac Theme here. Constantine and the thugs managed to find Anna’s base at the Cistern of Theodosius where they looted all the icons under restoration there as no one was there and in an act of revenge, Constantine had some of them burned and another set of icons which he saw Anna’s name on them personally destroyed by himself as an act of vengeance. In the gardens of Constantinople’s imperial palace, Constantine himself in a mental breakdown as Mario put it personally destroyed the icons his sister made by stepping on them, slamming them against the courtyard columns, breaking them with his knees, and even urinating on them and here his father caught him right at the moment doing that. Leo III caught Constantine screaming and cursing countless times thus asking Constantine what was wrong and Constantine clearly kept screaming “Anna you double-crosser, this is what you deserve!” and here Leo saw the icons his daughter had made or restored and was not surprised as he always argued with her though Leo still did not know Anna was leading a secret resistance against Iconoclasm, but knowing how Constantine felt, Leo told him that he felt this kind of way before back in Justinian II’s 2nd reign when Leo as Konon then was betrayed by the emperor who he thought put all his faith into him when Justinian II stranded Konon across the snowy Caucasus Mountains before meeting Maria and Anna’s birth. Leo here told Constantine he would get his chance to prove himself right here by going to battle as an Arab army had breached into the Anatolic Theme in Asia Minor which needed to be driven away. Leo III one more time led his army mostly consisting of the Cataphract cavalry in battle and this time with his son and co-emperor Constantine by his side confronting the Arabs at the Battle of Akroinon just south of the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion and here, the Byzantines would again defeat the Arabs killing 13,000 of them including the Arab generals. This battle then turned the tide of war against the Arabs and with the success here, Leo III believed that God was now on the side of the Byzantines for getting rid of unholy icons while Constantine would here gain the popularity he so wanted as the army would now praise him for his bravery in battle. Although the Byzantines won a major victory, in October of 740 a great earthquake struck Constantinople destroying a lot of buildings while the Hagia Eirene church was severely damaged and so were the Theodosian Walls while the statue of Constantine I above the Column of Constantine fell off. Now those who supported the icons including the empress Maria here thought that this earthquake was punishment from God for destroying holy icons and following the earthquake Leo III proceeded to rebuild the land sea walls but was here beginning to grow worse in health.

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Leo III and Constantine V fighting Umayyad Arab forces at the Battle of Akroinon in 740, Byzantine victory
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Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, partially destroyed by the 740 earthquake

Watch this to learn more about Leo III and his reign (Thersites the Historian).


The War of the Emperors (The Climax)        

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Following the victory of the Byzantines at the Battle of Akroinon in 740, a period of stability for the empire and the Thematic System would begin and after repairing the damage on Constantinople from the recent earthquake, Leo III would no longer be able to function well anymore and so here he reassigned Artavasdos to the Opsikion Theme closer to Constantinople to be its Komes– as this Theme’s general was not known as a Strategos- moving his family there except for his eldest son Niketas who was left behind in the Armeniac Theme replacing his father as its Strategos at only 18. By this point in 741 when moving to the Opsikion Theme, Artavasdos and Anna had a total of 9 children as it is recorded that after Niketas and Nikephoros they had 7 other children although their names and genders are not recorded, so for this story’s case, 3 of the 7 were boys and the 4 were girls. Now on June 18 of 741, Emperor Leo III the Isaurian formerly known as the Syrian shepherd Konon had died at 56 from complications caused by his health condition of edema being the first emperor since Constantine IV in 685 to meet a peaceful end, though Leo III’s legacy of Iconoclasm would live on now that his 23-year-old son Constantine V being his co-emperor immediately succeeded to the throne crowned by the Iconoclast patriarch Anastasios while Constantine’s 27-year-old wife the Khazar Tzitzak who now was becoming fluent in Greek was crowned as his empress or Augusta.

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Coin of Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos

Artavasdos here had the worst day of his life when Constantine V was crowned as the empire’s sole emperor and so Artavasdos rather than attending the coronation in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople went hunting alone in the Opsikion Theme- in this story- while Anna and their children attended. Here Artavasdos was already 54 but still looking as young and strong as he was when helping Leo III come to power in 717 with long dark hair and a long beard while Anna here at 33 despite having already had 9 children was still looking young and beautiful as ever, while Constantine V at 23 looked very young too with thick and long dark curly hair and a short and stocky stature like his father, though he was quite overweight and bad in posture. Constantine V spent the first few months of his reign in 741 consolidating his power and continuing enforcing the Iconoclast policies of his father and true enough soldiers continued their constant raids into houses and churches across the empire confiscating icons and burning them. While the war on icons continued to rage on, Anna and her resistance movement of women still continued to horde and restore icons in the middle of the night while Constantine V now had everything he wanted as emperor and almost every night he would host lavish and wild parties at the imperial palace dancing and drinking to the point of getting hangovers. As a bisexual, Constantine enjoyed having young men and women at his parties barely clothed except for a toga over their underwear and in these parties, Constantine too would get high by inhaling a flower that could be used as a drug from Asia Minor. Both Anna and Artavasdos now had their own reasons to hate Constantine as not only was he an Iconoclast extremist and an obstacle to Artavasdos but he was also an excessive young man that cared more about pleasure than for the good of his empire and so here in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos when at his bedroom with Anna told her that it was time to get rid of Constantine for the good of the empire by poisoning him and Anna was also intent on doing it as part of revenge on him destroying her icons the previous year. Artavasdos here also told Anna in private that Constantine V needed to go as they both knew Constantine had a health condition which was epilepsy which was a valid reason to make him not completely suitable to be emperor as just a simple health condition could discredit someone from being emperor for the emperor needed to be seen as a perfect human and Artavasdos having no kind of health condition or deformity would be a perfect candidate for the throne. In this story’s case in one night in March of 742 while Constantine V was having another wild party in the palace, Anna decided to attend it to as being the emperor’s sister, she would definitely be allowed entry and so in her house, she dressed up for the occasion in more lose and revealing clothes as for Constantine, the more skin showing the better. The dress Anna put on here was simply a red silk Ancient Roman style dress which was just an easy to put on red sleeveless tunic just fastened above the shoulders with a pin and a red toga cloth known as a Stola draped over it with only two belts to hold up the dress where one was fastened below the chest and the other at the waist, and when wearing it she realized how comfortable it was compared to the more conservative and difficult to wear Byzantine style dresses of her time.

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Sample Roman red dress with a Stola

While Anna was dressing up, Artavasdos came in giving her the vial of poison which Anna put deep inside her dress right at what was her underwear, a piece of cloth tied around the chest- the one seen in the 4th century Roman mosaic- which she tightened it more to hold in the poison vial and it was here when she told Artavasdos the whole truth that she was in fact leading a the resistance against Iconoclasm and Artavasdos did not really seem to mind as he never really cared about Iconoclasm anyway and would just do whatever it took to get rid of Constantine and it was here at this party through Anna that would be his first opportunity to get rid of Constantine as Leo III was now dead and Artavasdos with Leo still alive would not do any harm to his family. Before leaving Artavasdos kissed Anna and brushed his hand down her body, also to make sure the poison vial stayed in place inside her clothes. The party then went on in the imperial palace and Anna was able to enter freely looking for the drinks being served to Constantine although she failed to carry out the plan as she soon enough couldn’t help but indulge herself in the alcoholic drinks and later, she got too drunk that the poison vial slipped out of her dress into a couch while she later crashed into one of the beds nearby waking up the next day when the party was over. The next day as the palace staff cleaned up the room where the party the night before was, they found the vial of poison and a headband and when Constantine saw it, he knew the headband belonged to Anna, therefore Constantine concluded Anna was attempting to poison him. Anna however happened to be inside the palace and when woken up by the palace staff cleaning it, she was immediately brought to Constantine in her sleepwear who then pulled her hand dragging her to the palace courtyard where he had the palace guards chain her up to one of the columns and afterwards tear off the back of her nightgown while Constantine pulled out a whip ready to whip her himself. Now as emperor, Constantine had the right chance to punish his older sister that made him feel so miserable and here he viciously whipped Anna’s back on and on and as he remembered all the moments Anna got all the attention instead of him, he increased the power of the whipping until Anna passed out, and at the end, Constantine gave Anna 30 lashes until her back was filled up with bruises, although there was not much bleeding as it was only a soft leather whip that was used on her. The first people to pick up Anna later on and help her recover were her two younger sisters Irene and Kosmo as well as her mother Maria who put her in a cold bath in their part of the palace where Maria looking at her daughter in the bath saw all the wounds at her back. Anna waking up felt some kind of discomfort as her mother and sisters were present while she was naked in the bath but she told her mother here exactly what happened and that Constantine is insane, while also Anna told her mother that Constantine does not know yet she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm but if he finds out he’ll have everything they worked so hard to restore destroyed and them all executed regardless if they’re his family members. Maria told Anna here that it was now time to rise up against Constantine V and replace him with Artavasdos but it was also hard for Maria as this meant getting rid of her son although she asked that Constantine should instead suffer a more humane punishment which was to just have his tongue cut off if Artavasdos succeeded in his rebellion. Some nights later after Anna recovered from her wounds, while she and Artavasdos were at their bed in their house in Constantinople, Artavasdos while looking at the wounds in Anna’s back as she was lying down with only the blanket covering her told her some valuable information he heard from Constantine V which was that the reigning Umayyad Arab caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik launched another attack into Asia Minor and that Artavasdos was asked to take part in the counter-attack by leading the Opsikion Theme’s troops. Here, Anna told Artavasdos that this was the right opportunity to strike against Constantine V by doing it in the middle of battle abandoning Constantine V’s forces there.

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Iconoclasm continues under Constantine V
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Dressing up a Byzantine era woman

           

As the summer of 742 came, Artavasdos with the Opsikion Theme army joined Constantine V as they marched east out of Constantinople into Asia Minor to confront the Arabs while Anna right here organized a meeting with the members of the Iconodule resistance at their base, the Cistern of Theodosius where she asked everyone if they were all in favor of Artavasdos as emperor in which all said yes as they’d rather have anyone else other than the monster Constantine V. For the people that supported icons, Artavasdos was the perfect choice even if he was not really a strong believer of icons but for them it would seem like he was not a usurper with no legitimacy as he had family ties being Leo III’ son-in-law and was also a disciplined and no-nonsense soldier and administrator unlike the unstable and somewhat insane Constantine V who they were now all comparing to all the lunatic and bloodthirsty Roman and Byzantine emperors of the past like Caligula (r. 37-41AD), Nero (r. 54-68AD), Commodus (r. 180-192), Phocas (r. 602-610), and Justinian II. Together with Artavasdos in this campaign was his younger son Nikephoros who was being trained here by his father in battle but right before they would all confront the Arab forces, when marching somewhere in the Anatolic Theme, Artavasdos and a few of his Cataphract cavalry soldiers charged right at the portion under Constantine V’s command wherein one of the commanders of Constantine’s bodyguard force named Beser was killed.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry soldier

Artavasdos then shouted out loud to Constantine that Anna ordered this as she is leading the resistance against Iconoclasm, although Constantine here did not attack Artavasdos fearing Artavasdos’ forces will kill him first so instead Constantine and the troops loyal to him fled the site retreating to the Anatolic Theme’s capital Amorion which was just nearby. Artavasdos together with Nikephoros after turning on Constantine V also did not continue with campaign, instead they marched their forces back to Constantinople where Artavasdos was ready to crown himself emperor before Constantine could make it back there. When arriving back in Constantinople, both Anna and Patriarch Anastasios welcomed them and here there was total shift in Patriarch Anastasios who from being a strong Iconoclast suddenly became an ardent supporter of Artavasdos, of Anna’s resistance, and of icons in general. Anastasios meanwhile just like Artavasdos never really cared much about Iconoclasm or defending icons as he being the patriarch only wanted to be in favor of the reigning emperor no matter who whether Iconoclast or not but when seeing for himself how much the people rallying under Anna were so ardent about icons, he felt their pain and therefore in an instant became totally on their side and a defender of icons. Artavasdos at 55 here was soon enough crowned as emperor dressed in the new imperial robes or the Loros Justinian II previously introduced while Anna was crowned as empress or Augusta and Nikephoros even though being their second son was crowned as co-emperor to fully secure Artavasdos’ branch of the Isaurian Dynasty as the eldest son Niketas was still over in the Armeniac Theme here at this point in 742, therefore there was no time to crown him co-emperor as Constantine V could return in any moment. It is also debated by historians that Niketas may not be Artavasdos’ son with Anna but from a previous wife which is why he was not crowned co-emperor although this is highly unlikely and this wouldn’t be the case for this story. After his coronation, Artavasdos was then backed by Anna’s mother Maria and younger sisters Irene and Kosmo who all encouraged him to take the title of “Protector of the Holy Icons” as by supporting the cause of the people for the icons or the Iconodules, his legitimacy as emperor would be more secure as the majority people of Constantinople had backed him. Meanwhile in Amorion, Constantine V was still emperor but there only as the people there especially the army with him and of the Anatolic Theme supported Iconoclasm therefore backing him. As it turned out, the soldiers that were in Amorion were mostly the same ones two years earlier at the Battle of Akroinon that helped Constantine and his father defeat the Arabs and remembering him well, they all rallied under him and so did the entire army and people of the Anatolic Theme. Constantine V here at least got the dream he wanted so much which was to have a great amount of popularity and these soldiers not only supported him, they pledged to fight and die for him and for the name of Iconoclasm. Constantine V though when in Amorion in this story’s case would also get some strange dreams, although this would be due to his growing addiction to the flower drugs he was taking, and as Mario put it here, Constantine in Amorion one time dreamt that he was in his bedroom there seeing Artavasdos in the bed next to him thinking it was real until waking up the next day seeing Artavasdos was not there. Artavasdos too experienced the same thing back in Constantinople, except instead he got a dream of Constantine overthrowing and blinding him- as what happened in real history. As emperor in Constantinople, Artavasdos’ first act was to restore all the icons to their rightful places as well as repaint the frescos in which their faces were destroyed and all this had to be done in little time before Constantine V could come back while Artavasdos too apologized to the people for what he did back in 726 in taking down the mosaic at the Chalke Gate saying he only did it because of his loyalty to Leo III. Under the guidance of Anna with her mother and sisters, a lot of these icons were successfully returned to their rightful places from being kept underground at the Cistern of Theodosius while a lot of those that were destroyed were fixed to be good as new again. At the same time, both Constantine V in Amorion and Artavasdos in Constantinople during the autumn and winter of 742 began preparing their armies for the ultimate civil war to come. Constantine further encouraged his soldiers by reminding them that they are fighting to get rid of Artavasdos and Anna who he called the “double-crosser” in his speeches and this anger also further increased the morale of the soldiers as they knew from reports that they were rapidly undoing the Iconoclast policy of Leo III which was their hero. The armies of the Themes of Thrace and Opsikion would then switch sides to Anna’s resistance and Artavasdos and so would the distant Armeniac Theme under Niketas who immediately got word from his father to join forces with him against Constantine V who meanwhile was backed by the armies of the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes all being loyal to the Iconoclast cause. By early 743, it turned out almost the entire population of Constantinople especially monks, nuns, and women were all loyally behind Artavasdos giving him hope that he will defeat Constantine V, also because he had 3 Themes with him while Constantine only had two Themes.          

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Seal of Emperor Artavasdos
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Cataphract cavalry, elite army of the Byzantine Themes
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Amorion, Capital of the Anatolic Theme

Watch this to learn more about Emperor Artavasdos (Eastern Roman History).

Over in Italy, in this story’s case Exarch Eutychius in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos being crowned emperor, he switched his support to Artavasdos and restoring icons even if he was against icons considering he was loyal supporter of Leo III. Eutychius though would only switch his support since he desperately needed imperial support no matter who, as Byzantine rule in Italy was almost completely lost due to the ambitious conquests of the Lombard king Liutprand that in 738 Ravenna was temporarily captured by the Lombards that Eutychius had to flee to the new Republic of Venice before recapturing the exarchate’s capital of Ravenna some years later.

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Pope Zachary, Patriarch of Rome (741-752)

It also happened that back in 741, the new pope Zachary was elected and in 743 when hearing of Artavasdos coming to power and restoring icons, here in this story’s case he congratulated him agreeing to have the Church of Rome in good terms with Constantinople again. Soon enough, the message to restore icons were spread to the western parts wherein Leo III had previously replaced their bishops with Iconoclast ones but with the Iconoclast policy gone under both Emperor Artavasdos and Patriarch Anastasios of Constantinople, the icons were freely allowed to be restored. Back in Constantinople, in this story’s case, Anna had managed to actually get Constantine’s wife Tzitzak who was left behind in Constantinople to support icons after having a couple of drinks together and this would be possibly because women were more attached to religious icons than men. With the army of Artavasdos fully assembled, they all marched into Asia Minor under Artavasdos’ command while the Armeniac Theme under Niketas would meet them along the way, although Artavasdos chose to attack Constantine V in waves but was not expecting that Constantine V led his entire army from both the Anatolic and Thracesian Themes to confront Artavasdos’ forces. The two sides met near the city of Sardis in Western Asia Minor in May of 743 and being outnumbered to the entire Thematic armies of Constantine V, Artavasdos’ and Niketas’ forces were defeated here although both father and son still survived as Niketas fled north and Artavasdos back to Constantinople to gather the second batch of his troops. 3 months later, Niketas and his Armeniac Theme army was spotted and cornered in the town of Modrine near the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor where Constantine with such a fury led a charge defeating the Armeniac troops again forcing Niketas to flee. Niketas though would still manage to regroup his army and blockade the Dardanelles strait to prevent Constantine passage into Europe but later on outside the city of Nicomedia on the way to Constantinople, Niketas lost again to his uncle due to Niketas being too young and inexperienced in fighting battles and when losing, Constantine captured his nephew Niketas himself personally beating him up to the ground and later shipping him to Constantinople to be imprisoned. Having defeated Niketas, Constantine then crossed the Dardanelles Strait into Thrace and later arriving outside Constantinople’s walls laying siege to it. Constantine V though did not entirely lay a siege but more of a blockade by both land and sea and after some 2 months by November of 743, the defending army tired of being locked in surrendered allowing Constantine V entry while Artavasdos together with Anna and Nikephoros made it in time to flee across the Bosporus to the Opsikion Theme while Niketas was left in a prison within Constantinople.          

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Coin of Emperor Artavasdos (left) and his and co-emperor Nikephoros (right)
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Byzantine Civil War- Battle of Sardis, 743- Constantine V’s forces defeat Artavasdos’ forces under Niketas, art by Faisal Hashemi

When the city garrison surrendered to Constantine V who now entered Constantinople in the new uniform of the imperial Loros after more than a year of losing the throne, he was beyond disgusted to see how much icons Artavasdos and Anna restored and the worst part for him- in this story’s case- was seeing his name with the title “Kopronymos” graffitied in the city’s walls which was the nickname people that hated him used to put him down reminding him of defecating in the baptismal water as a baby.

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Byzantine blinding from the Madrid Skylitzes

Constantine though did not yet destroy the icons that were just restored, instead he first focused his attention to rounding up everyone he knew was loyal to Artavasdos and Anna mostly being monks and women in the resistance movement and had them all either blinded, have their noses cut off, or executed in the most brutal ways such as being sawn in half or burned alive right in front of him as he celebrated with drinks and music. The next person Constantine targeted was Patriarch Anastasios who Constantine saw betrayed him and Iconoclasm by switching sides to Artavasdos so here like in real history, Constantine had Anastasios’ robes torn off and put on the back of donkey to be paraded around the streets of Constantinople wherein those loyal to Constantine all laughed at the site mocking Anastasios.

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Sawing in half execution method

Constantine though like in real history here did not fire Anastasios, instead he only punished him by humiliation and afterwards chose to keep him as patriarch as he could not find any replacement and just wanting to be in favor with the reigning emperor again, Anastasios chose to switch his support to Constantine V again. The next move Constantine V planned was to install a large mosaic of a black cross which was to replace an old mosaic with an image of Christ for the apse of the Hagia Eirene which was here under repair after the damage caused to it by the earthquake of 740 but before he began working on it, Constantine returned to his wife Tzitzak in the imperial palace before going to his bath alone as a way to relax now that he had taken back the throne. When in his baths, as Mario again put it, Constantine again went back to inhaling the drug flowers he so loved that soon enough he began hallucinating things including the time he was a baby defecating on the baptismal font, his sister Anna getting more attention for works, the icons of Anna that he broke and urinated on, how Anna tried to poison him, and lastly he saw Artavasdos right next to him with a dagger about to slit his throat, although later Constantine snapped out seeing this was only a hallucination.

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Drug flower inhaled by Constantine V

Although right when Constantine woke up from his hallucination- in this story’s case- his 3 sisters Anna, Irene, and Kosmo all surrounded him and out of fear thinking they were there to strangle him in his bath under Artavasdos’ orders, Constantine immediately told Anna he was sorry for hurting her before but Anna replied telling him he was only hurting himself with what he did to her by only making his hatred consume him. Anna then told Constantine that Artavasdos sent her back there offering to settle the claim to the imperial throne with a personal duel between Artavasdos and Constantine to the point of only making one submit to the other which would allow Constantine to prove himself once again. Constantine willing to fully have revenge on Artavasdos agreed to the duel thus putting on his golden imperial armor and readying his sword, the curved single-blade Byzantine saber known as the Paramerion. In real history, after fleeing Constantinople in November of 743, Artavasdos sought refuge in a castle in the Opsikion Theme but was immediately caught there by Constantine V’s soldiers and brought to Constantinople where he together with both sons Niketas and Nikephoros were blinded and sent to live out their lives in the small Monastery of Chora in the outskirts of Constantinople where all 3 would die possibly not so long after from the infection caused by the blinding, thus ending the rebellion and short reign of Artavasdos.

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Paramerion, Byzantine curved sword

In this case however, Constantine himself travelled to this castle across the Bosporus together with his sisters who brought him to Artavasdos who was already waiting for Constantine in his imperial armor above the castle walls. The duel between both emperors would begin with Constantine striking with his sword first which Artavasdos immediately dodged and watching from the other side of the walls opposite to them were Anna, Irene, Kosmo, and Nikephoros while Artavasdos’ loyal troops stayed below inside the castle and Constantine’s troops outside. Both Artavasdos and Constantine here both dueled each other with their Paramerion sabers and for a long neither of them got the upper hand as both blades kept parrying each other, although Constantine managed to head-butt Artavasdos while Artavasdos in return swept Constantine’s leg pinning him down, but Constantine later managed to cut Artavasdos’ leg with his sword injuring him. Constantine then used the pommel of his sword to beat Artavasdos’ face into a pulp but Artavasdos still fought back by choking Constantine and while trying to pin him down, he kept taunting Constantine with insults including again calling him “Kopronymos” which only made Constantine angrier therefore breaking free from Artavasdos’ choke hold making Artavasdos drop his sword, and then pinning Artavasdos down to the ground. Constantine then dropped his sword and placed his foot on Artavasdos’ neck as again a sign of having conquered him, though Constantine took too much time doing that to show everyone around him he and Iconoclasm had still won thus the soldiers loyal to Constantine outside the castle walls all cheered but taking too much time showing off to everyone, Artavasdos enraged as ever at Constantine beating him managed to break free from Constantine’s foot, got up, hit Constantine’s waist hard with his elbow, kicked Constantine in the stomach, and kicked Constantine again, though the second kick resulted in Constantine falling off the railing of the castle wall. Constantine then fell off in what would be equivalent to 3 floors hitting his back right at the ground of the castle’s interior being critically injured and, in a coma, while the cheers of his soldiers outside the walls suddenly stopped, and Anna being shocked at the sight of her brother falling off the castle walls screamed “Artavasdos what did you do!” while Artavasdos also being shocked at what happened fell to the ground exhausted. The soldiers loyal to Constantine meanwhile in the panic all decided to switch their support to Artavasdos but at the same time also carried Constantine’s body away while Anna put her hand on his neck noticing his pulse was still beating despite him being unconscious. Later on, everyone who was at that castle including Artavasdos all returned to Constantinople quietly as none of them expected the duel to end with Constantine critically injured and near dead. When hearing of what happened to her son, Maria refused to speak to Artavasdos and took a vow of silence refusing to even lay her eyes on him for her entire life as he almost killed Constantine who Maria only wanted slightly injured to make him unqualified to take the throne. Now that Constantine despite surviving the fall was completely paralyzed and had to be confined to the which would be here the Chora Monastery and being completely paralyzed, there would be no chance at all for Constantine to return to power. Artavasdos meanwhile as the full emperor would keep Anastasios still as patriarch who would again shift his loyalty back to Artavasdos and icons, then Artavasdos too would establish his branch of Leo III’s Isaurian Dynasty now making his other son Niketas who would here be released from prison as his other co-emperor together with Nikephoros, and now fully taking back the throne, Artavasdos would issue a decree saying that all icons in the empire are to be restored.

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Patriarch Anastasios paraded on a donkey by order of Constantine V
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Iconoclast art, the cross at the apse of the Hagia Eirene added by Constantine V
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Byzantine castle in the Opsikion Theme in Asia Minor
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Byzantine era Chora Monastery in Constantinople, Constantine V’s exile place (Artavasdos’ in reality)

Aftermath and Conclusion         

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In real history the failed rebellion of Artavasdos and his civil war against Constantine V showed that the empire was literally split in half over the issue on icons so it was basically Byzantium vs Byzantium where icons were still popular among one half of the population and despised by the other half. Constantine V in reality saw the uprising of Artavasdos which he defeated as a sign to make him have a firmer stance on Iconoclasm which he took to an even higher level later passing death sentences on those who possessed icons as the issue could lead to civil wars like the one he faced from 742 to 743 that nearly cost him his life.

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Emperor Constantine V Kopronymos (r. 741-742/ 743-775)

In real history, Artavasdos and his sons Niketas and Nikephoros were all publicly blinded in the Hippodrome and all banished to the Chora Monastery in Constantinople whereas Anna and the rest of their 7 children would all follow them there to retirement where Anna would be the one caring for her blinded husband and sons who die not so long after, possibly only 2 years later in 745 from the infection caused by the wounds from the blinding. The same historian Theophanes the Confessor who was hostile to Constantine V as well as to his father Leo III and Justinian II before him mentions that 30 years after Artavasdos’ rebellion failed (773), Anna returns to the picture now as an old woman while Constantine V was still in power and here he forced Anna to dig up the bodies of her Artavasdos and her 2 sons with him, use her cloak to carry their bodies, and dump them in a mass grave as a way of condemning them as heretics for supporting icons, while Anna afterwards disappears from the pages of history. Constantine V in 754 in real history called for a Church Council at Hieria, found right across the Bosporus from Constantinople attended by hundreds of Iconoclast bishops and priests from the empire wherein the full-scale persecution of Iconodules was declared.

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Church Council of Hieria, 754 headed by Emperor Constantine V (left)

As emperor, Constantine V’s Iconoclast policy was even way more extreme than his father’s as not only did he pass death sentences on those who supported icons especially on those restored them or encouraged to restore them, but he hating scholars and monks primarily targeted them, had monasteries raided to confiscate icons and their hidden wealth to fund his armies, and had many monks and nuns blinded as well. Another thing Constantine V did as a result of the rebellion of Artavasdos which he crushed was that he divided the troublemaking Opsikion Theme which Artavasdos was in charge of into two halves as a way to weaken its power; the first one still being the Opsikion Theme which had Nicaea as its capital and the other half became known as the Optimatoi Theme with Nicomedia as its capital. As part of creating the new Optimatoi Theme, Constantine V had also introduced a new unit in the Byzantine army which was the Tagmata (singular: Tagma), the new elite force in charge of protecting the emperor in battle which was to be loyal to the emperor at all times which Constantine V created in response to Artavasdos’ rebellion, and the Tagmata were then assigned to the Optimatoi Theme.

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Byzantine Tagmata soldier, elite imperial force created under Constantine V

On the other hand, other than viciously persecuting Iconodules and carrying out an extreme policy of Iconoclasm, Constantine V was a very popular emperor especially among the army as he was most of the time victorious in battle against the Arabs and later against the Bulgars up north, and also because he gave free food to the people of Constantinople, possibly as a way to compensate for his persecutions on Iconodules. Now back to the situation of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, as their armies were raiding into Asia Minor by the time Constantine V and Artavasdos fought the civil war with each other, they never really penetrated as far as by this time the Umayyad Caliphate was weakening and by 746 once Constantine V finished the civil war, he turned his attention to the war against the Arabs winning a great victory and even recapturing his father’s hometown of Germanikeia in Syria which had some time earlier fallen to the hands of the Arabs. Following this victory, the Byzantine navy defeated an Arab fleet near Cyprus in 747 while in 752, Constantine recaptured a great number of territories in Eastern Asia Minor from the Arabs and resettled the people to the Balkans right at the border with the Bulgarian state. Meanwhile, in 750 the Umayyad Caliphate after another civil war was destroyed and replaced by a new Arab power being the Abbasid Caliphate moving the capital from Damascus to Baghdad which relieved the Byzantines as the new Caliphate’s center was farther away and that it would take some time for this new power to consolidate its rule over the Arab world, though in 751 the new Caliphate won a victory over the forces of the Chinese Tang Empire at the Battle of Talas in Central Asia while in the far west, Spain which came under the rule of the Umayyads still remained an Umayyad state in exile based in Cordoba refusing to be under the Abbasids.

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Fall of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna in 751, Exarch Eutychius surrenders Ravenna to the Lombards

However in the remains of Byzantine Italy, not all went in favor for the Byzantines and by 751 with Italy being neglected by Constantine V and Leo III before him as it was too far away, the Exarchate of Ravenna came to an end when Eutychius its last exarch surrendered Ravenna to the Lombards as it proved already too impossible to hold, though the fall of Ravenna to the Lombards was also another blessing in disguise as if it stayed longer under Byzantine rule, the valuable mosaics such as those of Justinian and Theodora which had their faces would have been destroyed and the Lombards not being Iconoclasts would keep them that way when holding Ravenna. With the emperor neglecting Byzantine Italy as their problems were mostly in the east, the pope had also begun to lose faith in the Byzantines, also because of their Iconoclast policy so for protection against the ambitious Lombards, the pope would have to turn to the new powerful Frankish Kingdom up north in today’s France which was willing to fight the Lombards and could be more trusted by the pope as the Franks unlike the Byzantines did not destroy icons. From 755 onwards, Constantine V with the threat of the Arabs dealt with turned his attention north to wage war against the Bulgars who also declared war on them when feeling suspicious of Constantine V fortifying the Byzantine border with them and in this war, the Byzantines won 3 major victories over the Bulgars first in 756, then in 759, and lastly in 763 and with all these victories, Constantine surely believed that Iconoclasm was definitely a successful move. Constantine V later planned another attack on the Bulgars again in 775 but failed to as he died that year at the age of 57 and at his death, he left the empire stronger than he had founded it. According to the Russian Byzantinist historian George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), he says Constantine V’s had an equally positive and negative reputation as on the positive side he scored countless victories against the Arabs and Bulgars making him very popular with the army especially but on the negative side he was a more vicious Iconoclast than his father that the same historian Theophanes the Confessor described him in the same vicious way as he did with Justinian II saying Constantine V was a “monster” and even a “precursor of the Antichrist” because of how extremely he went against icons therefore because of his extreme Iconoclasm, he would forever be remembered as “Kopronymos” or the “shit-named” despite him still being a capable emperor.                 

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Constantine V’s Iconoclasm from the Manases Chronicle
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Map of the new Arab Abbasid Caliphate, formed in 750 replacing the Umayyad Caliphate
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Battle of Talas, 751- Abbasid Caliphate Arabs defeat the Tang Chinese forces in Central Asia
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Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars from the Madrid Skylitzes
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Meme of Constatine V the chad compared to Virgin Basil II (r. 976-1025)

Now in this story’s case, the events in history will play out quite but not so differently with Artavasdos as emperor and Constantine V out after 743. For Constantine V in this story’s case with Artavasdos winning the civil war, he would be paralyzed for life and have to be confined to the Chora Monastery where in real history Artavasdos and his family were banished to, and in possibly only 2 years (by 745)- the possible date of Artavasdos’ death in real history- Constantine V would die from his severe injury at only 27. His wife Tzitzak here would have to return to her native land of the Khazars like what Justinian II’s wife did back in 711, whereas in real history Tzitzak had died in 750 after giving birth to Constantine V’s first son Leo IV “the Khazar” who would succeed his father as emperor. With Artavasdos continuing his reign as emperor on the other hand, not so much would be different as compared to Constantine V’s reign in reality, except of course for the destructions of icons, and with Artavasdos fully reigning as emperor from 743 onwards, the icons previously destroyed under Leo III and Constantine V would all be put back in place and day and night, the people serving Anna’s resistance would put the icons right back in their rightful places and repaint those that were damaged by the years of Iconoclasm. Therefore, with Artavasdos as emperor, there would be no Council of Hieria in 754, no persecutions, and no having to blind monks and nuns, and instead by some encouragement from Anna and her sisters who were strongly devoted to icons, Iconoclasm would be made illegal and the same Ecloga of Leo III would be updated with the part on Iconoclasm removed, and instead prohibiting it. As for the conflict with the Arabs, the same of course would happen with the Umayyad Caliphate’s power weakening so due to that, Artavasdos just as Constantine V did would also win a great number of victories against the Arabs in the east in 746, 747, and 752 also taking back Leo III’s hometown of Germanikeia. With Artavasdos staying as emperor though, things will only be different in the Byzantine world as outside it, things would still play out the same way as in real history so over with the Arabs, the Umayyad Caliphate would still be dissolved in 750 and replaced with the Abbasid Caliphate and over in Italy, the ambitious Lombards would continue to expand and in 751 take over Ravenna. The fall of Ravenna to the Lombards that would end the Byzantine Exarchate meanwhile would still be inevitable due to the increasing power of the Lombards, so in this story’s case even with Artavasdos as emperor, the same would happen in Italy wherein Exarch Eutychius would still surrender Ravenna to the Lombards and afterwards disappear from the pages of history by fleeing to the new Republic of Venice never to be heard from again, while Byzantine territory in Italy following the fall of Ravenna like in real history would only consist of the southern regions and Sicily as Rome was always asserting itself as independent anyway. However, since icons and icon veneration was now reinstated in Byzantium, the pope would still remain loyal to Byzantium and its emperor Artavasdos also agreeing to still keep Rome under the Byzantines’ protection, therefore this would be a very major change if Artavasdos who favored icons stayed as emperor as with this happening, the pope would no longer have to turn to the Frankish Kingdom for support against the Lombards, but instead still to the Byzantines while the Republic of Venice too would still remain an ally to Byzantium whether the empire was Iconoclast or not. Back in the empire when it would come to reforming the Themes, Artavasdos would also do the same as Constantine V in limiting the power of the Opsikion Theme thus dividing it and making the other half divided out of it also as the Optimatoi Theme as from his rebellion against Constantine V from 742-743, Artavasdos would realize from it despite being the one rebelling that this Theme was something that was causing trouble. In the process of breaking the Opsikion Theme in half too, Artavasdos would also do the same as Constantine V in real history in creating the new imperial elite force or the Tagmata that would be the emperor’s personal army in battle and he too would assign them to the new Optimatoi Theme. Artavasdos though considering that he was way older than Constantine V when taking over the throne in 742 being 55 then would not rule as long as Constantine V in real history who ruled until 775, instead Artavasdos as I would put it would die by 759 at the age of 72 despite having begun Byzantium’s new war against the Bulgars in 755 just as Constantine V did in real history, though at his death, Artavasdos would still leave the empire stronger than he had founded it, meaning Byzantium was more stable compared to how it was in 717 when Leo III with help of Artavasdos took over the empire wherein the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople, though for defending and restoring icons, Artavasdos would be made a saint. Following Artavasdos’ death, the elder son Niketas then would be the senior emperor though his younger brother Nikephoros having already been crowned co-emperor will still stay co-emperor. It would then be in the reign of Niketas and Nikephoros as co-emperors that the Byzantine-Bulgarian war would go on and just as it went in favor for Constantine V and Byzantium in real history, I would also say the same thing for Niketas and Nikephoros’ Byzantium wherein they would also score major victories over the Bulgars. Now we have come to the big question which is what if Artavasdos succeeded in defeating Constantine V and stayed as emperor and would this do a lot of change to the course of the Byzantine history? Well, the answer to this is not very simple but also not very complex. In the short-term, not a lot of changes would happen to the Byzantine Empire in its geography or political situation as after Artavasdos’ death in this story’s case which would be in 759, the Byzantine Empire would still be the same in size and power as it was in real history by this time wherein it was ruled by Constantine V, therefore Asia Minor would still be the heartland where all the Themes and the empire’s army though powerful would still not be that powerful enough to relive the conquests of Justinian I in the 6th century taking back Italy and North Africa once again. In the long-term things may be favorable for Byzantium if Artavasdos survived in power as considering the popes in Rome always opposed the Byzantines’ policy of Iconoclasm and with Artavasdos supporting the icons, then the Byzantine emperor as well as the Church of Constantinople would be still in good terms with the Church of Rome, therefore this will change a lot of things in the long-term for the turbulent relations between the pope and Byzantium. With icons reinstated earlier enough in Byzantium, then Byzantium’s relationship with the pope would not be fractured that much, therefore the pope would no longer have to ally with the Frankish Kingdom of Pepin I and Rome rather than later on becoming an independent state known as the Papal States would still remain under the rule of the Byzantine emperor except with some autonomy under the pope, and in the centuries to come if Byzantium remained in good terms with the pope if icons were reinstated earlier on, then possibly there would be no Great Schism later on in 1054 where the final division between the Eastern and Western Churches happened, and possibly no tensions between the Byzantines and the Crusaders by the time the 11th century ends, and lastly with Byzantium and the pope still good terms, there may even be no bloody 4th Crusade later on in 1204 that almost ended the Byzantine Empire. Of course, Iconoclasm in Byzantium did not go on forever as in 787 the empress regent Irene, the daughter-in-law of Constantine V called for a Church Council that put an end to it temporarily although by 815 Iconoclasm made a comeback under Emperor Leo V (r. 813-820) but in 843 with another Church Council led by the empress regent Theodora, Iconoclasm came to a full stop, therefore this also shows women were strongly devoted to icons.           

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Byzantine Cataphracts battle Arabs in Asia Minor
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New Byzantine Themes in Asia Minor by 750

And now I have come to the very end of chapter V of my Byzantine Alternate History series but before finishing I would like to share my thoughts on this era and creating this kind of dystopian Byzantine story with a mix of family drama and more. First of all, this era in Byzantine history being the 8th century is the part of Byzantine history I am not very much interested in as most of the conflicts except for the epic Arab Siege of 717-718 were mostly internal such as Iconoclasm while the empire was also at its lowest point and not so much too was recorded on this era, which is why it is often called the “Byzantine Dark Ages”. However, despite not being so interested in this era and having not so much recorded about it, I started to think that this was the best era to experiment by adding more fictional elements especially in creating a bit more of a fictional twist with the personalities and stories of historical figures who aren’t so much documented in real history like Artavasdos and Anna as well as Constantine V, except here since this story is in favor of the Iconodules or icon supporters, I made Constantine V look like the same kind of villain Iconodule historians like Theophanes the Confessor describe him as, although just to make the story in favor Artavasdos, I kind of had to embellish Constantine V’s villainous personality as someone more sadistic, deranged, envious, and decadent than what he actually was in reality. In addition, since there are not so many conflicts in this era for Byzantium to go so much into detail about, I also wanted to use this chapter as my chance to experiment more when writing about Byzantium by adding in some more family drama, intimate romance, wild partying scenes, a bit on Byzantine fashion and art, the origins of Constantine V’s title as the “shit-named”, the story of Leo III originally being Konon which was another Byzantine rags to riches story, a totally made up scenario of Constantine V being kicked off the walls by Artavasdos which was a scene inspired by the season 2 finale of Cobra Kai, and a dystopian angle was overall this story’s genre considering the whole issue on Iconoclasm and how it became a law in the empire. As for Artavasdos, this was the most interesting part for me to write about as he is possibly Byzantium’s least known emperor but indeed was an emperor even if ruling so short and having quite an unusual name for a Byzantine emperor and no matter how insignificant he may seem, he may have actually had a great impact on Byzantine history in the long term if he stayed in power as he supported icons and with Iconoclasm being one the major reasons for the permanent and bitter schism between Byzantium and the west, then this schism in the long-term may not be so great in scale if it so happened that Iconoclasm ended earlier under Artavasdos rather than in real history when it went on for about a century more with a small break in the middle (787-815). Of course, this story also had to include Justinian II’s first (685-695) and second (705-711) reigns, the 22-Year-Anarchy period (695-717), the complete loss of North Africa, and Leo III’s reign (717-741) as a way to give some background to the situation of 8th century Byzantium as this 22-Year-Anarchy period was put here to show how bad the situation for Byzantium setting the stage for the cruel 8th century while the first 2/3 of this story with Leo III’s reign and the Arab Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 was definitely important as way to set the stage for the foundation of Iconoclasm and for the conflict between Constantine V and Artavasdos. Now lastly, I also want to talk a bit about Byzantine Iconoclasm here and even though in its time it was popular among many and seemed to be what could have saved the empire from almost falling apart considering the reigns of the Iconoclast emperors Leo III and Constantine V were successful ones, it was also as I would say a waste of time for the Byzantines that really had no purpose and scientific or logical reason and was all based on superstition as when they could have used this time to possibly fix their relationship with the pope and therefore with the rising Western European kingdoms which in turn could have strengthened Byzantium in totally turning the tide of war against the Arab in the east or the Bulgars in the north, but instead the Byzantines wasted their time in the internal issue of Iconoclasm and even though the empire would live longer beyond Iconoclasm vanished, it still ruined their relations with the pope and the west, thus in the long-term Iconoclasm was one of the driving factors for the downfall of Byzantium. Of course back then, without much science to explain things, people would turn to the most stupid of things such as destroying icons thinking it would save them without knowing it would do more harm than good. Overall, as I finish this chapter I have to realize that it was a very hybrid kind of story with the Arab-Byzantine wars fused together with a modern-era dystopian angle, religious controversies, family drama, romance, decadence, and very little details that are too less important for history to mention and this was the whole purpose of writing this chapter in particular, which was to show a more personal and emotional touch in retelling the rich and fascinating history of Byzantium and of course I would have to thank my friend Mario for helping me here in creating the littlest details for this story found here and there. Of course, here in the 8th century, no matter how far this may have been from the time of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire was still the Roman Empire in name and politics despite its culture now drastically shifting to Greek yet here the dystopian story of the Byzantine Dark Ages does not yet end as the next chapter will continue the story of Byzantine Iconoclasm ending in 787 and how Byzantium will react to the birth of new empire in the west that will come to challenge their authority.

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Empress Irene of Athens (r. 780-802), daughter-in-law of Constantine V

Up next in chapter VI of Byzantine Alternate History, the story from this chapter on Artavasdos staying in power will not continue, though the next chapter will start off not too long after this one finished which means some characters including Constantine V but this time like in reality staying power will return and here, the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium would come to an end with Empress Irene but at the same time, Byzantium will face the rise of the new Frankish Empire of Charlemagne in 800 that had come to challenge the authority of the weakened Byzantine Empire but if Irene and Charlemagne were to marry, then possibly it would be one of the biggest what ifs in world history, thus with this marriage Europe could once again become a super-empire almost as large as the Roman Empire of old. Well, this is all for chapter V of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveller… thank you for your time!

Byzantine Alternate History Series: Chapter III- The Empire Strikes Back; Justinian the Great Saves his Empire from the Plague and Personally Joins his Campaigns

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 6th century AD. This story will begin with events that have happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses. Fictional scenarios in this story will be marked by footnotes (1). This will be an extremely long article!

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century

Keep cool and you will command everyone” -Emperor Justinian I the Great (482-565AD)

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Welcome to the third chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time, in the second chapter of my alternate history series, I discussed the events leading up to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century (476 AD) and how their twin empire, Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire played a part in the western empire’s story. At the same time, the previous article discussed a lesser-known event in the year 472 that could have helped save the Western Roman Empire from meeting its end just 4 years later and other what if scenarios such as if the Western Roman Empire survived 476, if the last competent Western Roman emperor Anthemius was not killed off in 472, and if in the Eastern Empire the unknown child emperor Leo II who died at only age 7 in 474 instead lived long enough to succeed his father Zeno as emperor. The last article too discussed a possible scenario of an epic world war between the two Roman Empires and their foreign allies against a massive Barbarian Alliance. However, in this new chapter of the alternate history series, again as I said about the background of this series I am making, there will be no continuity from the previous story (chapter II) to this one, so this story will begin with real history taking its course wherein the Western Roman Empire actually fell in 476 leaving the Eastern Roman Empire as the only surviving Roman Empire, now better known as the “Byzantine Empire”. Also keep in mind that this article will be very long because it will cover possibly the most eventful reign in Byzantine history, which is that of its most influential emperor Justinian I the Great. This story will be set in the 6th century AD, where under Emperor Justinian I the Great, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire would be at its greatest extent when North Africa, Italy, and Southern Spain for a time returned to Roman rule from Constantinople, the eastern empire’s capital after they have for a time fell to the hands of several barbarian powers. The Eastern Roman Empire on the other hand was never expected to regain the lost western provinces but this would soon enough become possible when Emperor Justinian I came to rule the eastern empire in 527 but at the same time, his reign was not all victory and imperial glory as we all remember, as it was also one of military and natural disasters but as a capable ruler, Justinian managed to face all the odds and die ruling the massive empire he had dreamt of. It is also timely that I wrote this article because as the COVID-19 pandemic is happening right now, this story will cover the pandemic then known as the “Plague of Justinian” in 542 which was named after Justinian himself who in fact was a victim of it but survived. Also, just recently, my favorite history related Youtube channel Dovahhatty just released his full feature video on Justinian the Great, and I should say that this story will be based a lot on Dovahhatty’s retelling of Justinian and his personality as he sees it. Now, Byzantine history cannot be told without telling the story of its most influential ruler Justinian the Great (aka. Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) who is one of history’s few rulers who came from humble origins but has left behind a very strong legacy in many aspects that are still live on up to this day and some of his greatest legacies include the complete codification of Roman law that still lives on to this day as the basis for the legal systems most countries use and the impressive structure of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople built in the 6th century which is still in its full form today. Having achieved so much in his lifetime, Justinian would not only be remembred as “the great” but as an Orthodox saint as well for doing his part to defend the faith.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565)

As emperor though, Justinian’s greatest feat was the carefully planned reconquests of the lost Western Roman provinces through his policy of what is known as “Intervention Imperialism” or finding reasons to justify a conquest of place especially if it had to do with defending the Orthodox Christian faith, which this story will be covering a lot of, together with the men responsible victories which were particularly his generals Belisarius and Narses, but at the end were all of Justinian’s ambitious conquests of North Africa, Italy, and Hispania worth it? In real history, despite these lands once again returning to Roman rule, it did not really last long as while Justinian ambitiously was masterminding the reconquest of the former Western Roman provinces, another war was being fought in the east with the empire’s long-time mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire and after Justinian’s death in 565, no matter how much lands were conquered it would be all downhill from here as the empire would undergo a chronic war with the Sassanid Persians in the east and face new enemies raiding into the empire from north such as the Slavs, Avars, Lombards, and more. Others blame Justinian for the downfall of the Byzantines’ imperial power due to his overly ambitious reconquests that drained the empire’s economy thus weakening it, but I would say it was not entirely his fault because there were things that happened which could not be controlled by Justinian no matter how powerful and talented he was, for instance the plague in 542 which undid most of his hard work and almost destroyed the Byzantine economy. Justinian too was one of a one of a kind exceptional ruler and only he could manage a very large empire no matter the odds as his successors in real history, were not as capable as he was. Not to mention, Justinian too, if considering all the Byzantine emperors until 1453 as “Roman emperors”, Justinian would be the last Latin speaking Roman emperor, which leads some to say that the age of Imperial Rome ended with him. In this story however, I will try to change the course of history by creating a fictional scenario of Justinian as emperor finding solutions to fight the plague of 542 by using it as a biological war to destroy the constant headache of the Sassanid Empire in the east since in the entire history of Rome’s wars against the Sassanids, there was no way the Romans could win by military force so I believe that if a biological war was used through the plague against the Sassanids, then the Romans (Byzantines) could end up victorious giving them more time to totally focus on their reconquests of the west. In addition, this story will also tackle one of Justinian’s mistakes which was not properly naming his successor. At the same time, Justinian no matter how energetic and hard-working he was as emperor earning him the title “the emperor that never slept” was a complete “palace emperor” who never left Constantinople in his reign no matter how much his empire expanded, but here I believe that if Justinian took part in his own ambitious conquests himself and got to know his nephew and successor Justin II a bit more by personally training him in his military campaigns in Italy, then then I believe that empire would stand stronger after Justinian’s death. Coincidentally, since this story is about how Byzantium strikes back to regain the west, it was fitting that I used the same title as Star Wars Episode V “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Now, if Justinian I was able to control the plague, train his own successor, and join his own military campaigns, would the Golden Age of the Byzantine Empire he worked so hard to attain still live on or were Justinian’s ambitions just plainly worthless?     

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 6th century following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be now referred to as Byzantines.

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The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent by 555 under Emperor Justinian I the Great
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Byzantine era Constantinople, capital of the empire

This article here is the first story in this 12-part series wherein I am working in collaboration with another fellow Byzantine history enthusiast and in this case, I put together this story with the help of my friend, Instagram user who prefers to call herself Justinianus Østromerriket (follow her on Instagram @justinianusthegreat), a Byzantophile or enthusiast of Byzantine history but more significantly as her username and Instagram profile pic suggests, she is an enthusiast of Emperor Justinian I the Great and his ambitious project known as the Renovatio Imperii or “Imperial Restoration” in Latin as stated in her bio. To give a brief background of Justinianus, she has been a fan of Byzantine history ever since the age of 15 and is currently 19 and a student of chemistry, but her true passion is Byzantine history and art. Aside from being a Byzantine history enthusiast, Justinianus is also an artist who makes illustrations of Byzantine characters in her own style, both through handmade drawings and digital art using the software Ibispaint; her artworks of 6th century Byzantines such as Justinian I will appear in this article too. Justinianus too dreams of being a Byzantinist in the future and to visit the places on earth where the Byzantine legacy is very strong including Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

Similarly, what we have in common is that we are both young in age and not academics or historians but we share a strong passion for Byzantine history and want to create some buzz for it and I am honored to do my very first collaboration article with her. When starting my Byzantine history Instagram account Byzantine Time Traveller very early this year, Justinianus was one of the first to follow me and apparently it had turned out that we see Byzantine history in the same way which is more or less a strong passion, so we came to work together in creating this story by doing our own role-playing of 6th century Byzantine history through Instagram chat for the past month and a half and here in this role-playing chat, she played as Justinian the Great himself and as I should say, she totally gets into his character very well, so the cool-headed and wise yet scheming personality and unknown side of Justinian that this story will tackle will be more or less her take of it. This alternate history story was created in our Instagram role-playing, as here in this story there will be events that did not happen in real history, most notably an elderly Justinian joining his military campaign in Italy himself while at the same time in this role playing, Justinianus had filled in the gaps by telling the unknown stories of Justinian’s own origins story, private and family life, and source of his ambitious dreams in both hers and my own point of view and since history does not record much about Justinian’s early life as well as private life, this fan fiction story will do just that even if it may not entirely be accurate to real history, just as how Dovahhatty told it in his most recent video. Our role-playing scenario will take place in the second half of this story set in Justinian’s later reign beginning in the year 550AD following the death of his beloved wife, Empress Theodora wherein Justinian from the hopeful and ambitious emperor he was earlier on in his reign becomes a bitter and sad old man thinking all his hopes were crushed especially due the recent plague until meeting a mysterious general and former wrestler named Andreas who will inspire Justinian to join in the conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths together with the generals Belisarius and Narses as the conquest of Italy nears its end and almost coming into a victory for the Byzantines. This story though will begin giving a background story to Justinian, his rise to power, and his early reign which will mostly be all based on historical facts, then it will proceed to the main part which will be on the Plague of Justinian beginning 541, then the climax will begin in the year 550 when the plague still around, but at least Justinian has managed to control it, and to get himself over the grief of losing Theodora, he decides to join his army in Italy together with his nephew Justin who he decides to train to be his successor as he is the only choice left as Justinian’s intended heir which was his cousin Germanus had just died. Overall, this story is more of a fan fiction re-write of history than a what-if story but it also includes a what if scenario, especially if Justinian properly trained his nephew who would eventually succeed him, the what if of Justinian using his own intelligence to destroy his mortal enemy, the Sassanid Empire with the plague. The age old problem of succession was surely something that eventually ruined the great legacy Justinian worked so hard on as in real history, he did not properly name his successor so instead the throne was left to his nephew Justin, his sister’s son who lacked the experience in running an empire while at the same time was hot headed but the worst part was that in 565 when coming to the throne, he inherited an extremely massive empire when having no experience in ruling it and as emperor Justin II’s own impulsive actions led to the war against the Sassanids in the east resuming when refusing to pay tribute to them, thus all the war and pressure of running an empire made him insane and unfit to rule that he had to abdicate, thus Justin II’s reign ruined everything his uncle worked so hard on. Now if Justin II was only properly trained by no other than his uncle Justinian the Great who would give him the advise “stay cool and you will command everyone” as the quote by Justinian himself says right at the top of this article, then I believe he would have been as great as his uncle in ruling the empire and this story will rewrite history that way.

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian I
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Guide to the late Roman army’s structure (by Powee Celdran); this article contains a lot of terms of late Roman army units.
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Guide to the Justinian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 518-602 (by Powee Celdran)

Related Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- Preventing the Fall of the Western Roman Empire 4 years in Advance

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part1 (330-1000)

The Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Constantinople: The Queen of Cities and its Byzantine Secrets

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect

Justinian the Great Related Videos:

Unbiased History: Byzantium II- Justinian the Great (Dovahhatty)

Unbiased History: Byzantium I- The Eastern Empire (Dovahhatty)

Emperor Justinian I (Thersites the Historian)

Justinian I’s Wars (Thersites the Historian)

Justinian the Great: Reconquest and its Legacy (Eastern Roman History)


This story will be extremely long as it spans the reign of Justinian I which was a total of 38 years wherein he was 45 when he became emperor in 527, and 83 at his death in 565, something very unusual for people at their time. This story will be basically focusing on Justinian I as its lead character while it will go in detail as well in going through his thoughts and personality which a lot of it happens to be missing in real history and in addition, this story too will contain some flashbacks of his earlier life told in his perspective. As the main character of this story, Justinian is surely a fascinating character to write about as despite coming from humble origins as a simple peasant in the Balkans born as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, he had a dream that he never let go of which was not only to be an emperor but to be the best and have a great legacy worth remembering up to this day and no matter how much odds he faced in his reign including a devastating pandemic that nearly destroyed his empire’s economy, a prolonged endless war to retake Italy, and a large number of natural disasters, he was able to achieve so much.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great action figure

Though Justinian is this story’s lead character, his nephew and successor Justin II will also play a major part in the story’s second half since a lot are not very familiar with the man who directly succeeded Justinian to the throne and here, Justin would be at first the stereotypical young, hot-tempered, and ignorant man who will go through a journey to be trained to become a wise and strong leader like his uncle by his uncle Justinian himself. History though does not mention what kind of relationship Justinian had with his nephew Justin but this story will do its best to tell that part of history (in a highly fictionalized form). This 12-part series too includes a fictional or unknown historical figure who will have a story built around him right in the middle of all these events, and here it will be Andreas, who appeared in real history as a Byzantine wrestler and soldier serving the general Belisarius back in the Sassanid War of 530 and though history does not mention what happens to Andreas after, in this case he rises up to become a general and personally fights with Justinian himself in the case of this fan fiction when Justinian himself goes over to Italy and in our role-playing, I had the chance of playing the character of Andreas as well as Justin II. Famous people of this age such as the generals Belisarius and Narses, the Ostrogoth king Totila, the Sassanid ruler Khosrow I, and the contemporary historian Procopius will be covered and so will their back stories. The historian Procopius, who was a Byzantine senator and secretary of the general Belisarius meanwhile is another interesting figure being a man with two sides as at first he wrote two books- Wars and On Buildings recording the reign of Justinian I in such great detail with such great praise of him and his administration but at the same time, he secretly he wrote his book The Secret History which totally slanders the image of Justinian as an incompetent and insane ruler while at the same time exposing his wife Empress Theodora’s life as an actress and her sex scandals exaggerating her as a former prostitute. In this case, just like in Dovahhatty’s most recent video, Procopius for ruining his emperor’s image out of pure envy will be this story’s villain together with the Ostrogoth and Sassanid rulers Totila and Khosrow I as Justinian is the protagonist, but no matter how much Procopius has tried to destroy Justinian’s reputation, his works remain a very valuable source of this era and Justinian’s reign as well as on the history of the late Roman age for the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. This story will be more Byzantine centric despite covering some of the happenings with the Ostrogoths of Italy, Visigoths of Spain, and Sassanid Empire though at the same time it will be a mix of the genres of adventure, drama, comedy, romance, politics, and war though no matter how detailed this story will go in the characters and their lives, I would not bother too much in explaining the political structures of the time, such as the imperial system of Byzantium and the names of the provinces of the empire. And of course, I have to say that when it comes to writing an alternate history story for 6th century Byzantium, it is impossible not to do this story of Justinian I as 6th century Byzantium was literally dominated by Justinian I and no one else but in the wider world, I’d say the 6th century was a very challenging time with so much happening especially since this is when Western Europe entered the Dark Ages while Byzantium stood at its finest as the bastion of Greco-Roman civilization.     


The Leading Characters: 

Justinian I- Byzantine emperor

Justin II- Heir apparent and future Byzantine emperor, nephew of Justinian I

Flavius Belisarius- Byzantine general

Narses- Byzantine eunuch general

*Andreas- Byzantine general and former wrestler (real named character but with not much story, his story was expanded here)

Theodora- Byzantine empress, wife of Justinian I 

Vigilantia- Sister of Justinian I, mother of Justin II

Procopius of Caesarea- Chronicler of Justinian I’s reign, secret antagonist 

Sophia- Niece of Theodora, wife of Justin II, future Byzantine empress 

John (Ioannes) the Cappadocian- Finance Minister of Justinian I

Germanus- Cousin and original heir apparent of Justinian I

Matasuintha- Wife of Germanus, former Ostrogoth princess 

Liberius- Elderly Byzantine general

Tribonian- Jurist of Justinian I’s court

John (Ionnes) the Sanguinary- Byzantine general in Italy 

Totila- Ostrogoth King of Italy (541-552) 

Athanagild- Visigoth rebel leader in Hispania and later king 

Khosrow I- Shah of the Sassanid Persian Empire 

Character Images Below of Selected Characters from this Story, Illustrated by Powee Celdran

(Credits to AmelianvsAkitku, G. Rava art, Ravesne, Slifer621, Androklos, Foojer, and Justinianus for their art on this era which are featured here.)   

Background Guide: Byzantine characters (yellow), Ostrogoths (red), Visigoths (blue), Sassanids (green) 


I. Part One

The Background- Before Justinian (The Real History)

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Ever since 395, the Roman Empire had been permanently split in half between east and west and while the Western Roman Empire faced catastrophe after catastrophe of barbarian invasions that totally weakened its power while the Eastern Roman Empire better known as the “Byzantine Empire” based in the growing imperial city of Constantinople, founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330 still stood strong due to its geographical position as it also controlled several provinces rich in resources such as Egypt, Syria, and those in Asia Minor. The western empire on the other hand had faced the worst and even though it was able to defeat the army of the invading Huns in 451 at the Battle of Chalons with the help of their former enemy, the Visigoths of Gaul, the end was already inevitable. In 472, the assassination of the last competent western emperor, Procopius Anthemius, who was in fact a Greek from the Byzantine Empire was the event that spelled the end for the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna. 4 years later in 476, the Western Roman Empire died out in a whimper when the barbarian Ostrogoth general Odoacer deposed the last western emperor, the puppet Romulus Augustus and instead of claiming the throne as emperor, Odoacer instead chose to just make himself “King of Italy” as the western empire at this point basically only consisted of Italy. In what was for the Romans the turbulent and dreadful 5th century, Gaul and Hispania were lost to the Visigoths, North Africa to the Vandals, Pannonia to the Ostrogoths, while Northern Gaul fell to the Franks, and Northwest Hispania fell to the Suebi while the eastern provinces on the other hand very much remained intact, though the 5th century too wasn’t entirely all great for the east as it too would have suffered the fate of the western empire’s collapse if it were not for the determination of strong rulers like Leo I (r. 457-474) and Zeno (r. 474-491). The emperor of the east at the time the Western Roman Empire was abolished and turned into the Kingdom of Italy was Zeno, son-in-law of Leo I married to Leo’s daughter Ariadne and following Leo I’s death in 474, his grandson who was Zeno and Ariadne’s 7-year-old son Leo II became the emperor or Augustus being directly related to Leo I though his father Zeno as his co-emperor basically ruled the empire for him but towards the end of 474, young Leo II died from a local epidemic in Constantinople making his father succeed him but shortly after in early 475, Zeno was usurped by his wife’s uncle Basiliscus out of popular pressure as Zeno being an Isaurian, a primitive non-Hellenized and non-Romanized citizen from the mountains of Asia Minor originally named Tarasis Kodisa but renamed Zeno to make his name more acceptable to the civilized Greek speaking people of Constantinople. In the one year the general Basiliscus usurped the eastern throne (475-476), his incompetence in fact made him turn out to be even more unpopular than Zeno and when the army sent by Basiliscus to hunt down Zeno in Isauria defected to Zeno’s side as they consisted of Isaurian warriors, they marched back to Constantinople and deposed Basiliscus who was exiled to Cappadocia wherein he died of starvation the next year when being locked up in a cistern.

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Zeno the Isaurian, Byzantine emperor (r. 474-475/ 476-491), illustration by Powee Celdran

Though Zeno came back to power in 476, he still remained as unpopular as he was in his first reign and most of this was due to not coming in time to save the western empire from falling to the hands of Odoacer. When coming back to power, Zeno received the crown of the last western emperor Romulus Augustus who was sent into exile wherein Zeno accepted it acknowledging that the Western Roman Empire was no more though the King of Italy Odoacer was to still answer to Zeno the way the western emperors previously were to answer to the eastern emperors who were their superiors. It was now here in 476 with the loss of the western empire that the Eastern Empire as the only surviving Roman power would be the “Byzantine Empire”. The western empire here may have died out as Italy fell to Odoacer but there were still a few Roman territories in the west namely Dalmatia under the governor Julius Nepos who previously the western emperor (474-475) appointed by Leo I and in Northern Gaul ever since 461, there was a surviving breakaway Roman state known as the “Kingdom of Soissons” ruled independently by a general named Syagrius. However, these 2 breakaway Roman states in the west did not last as in 480, Julius Nepos was assassinated giving Odoacer the opportunity to invade Dalmatia annexing it into his Kingdom of Italy and in 486, the Kingdom of Soissons fell to the new Kingdom of the Franks when Syagrius was defeated in battle by the Frankish king Clovis I. Back in the Byzantine Empire, Zeno’s reign was not only troubled by riots every week as well as usurpers left and right but by a troublemaking Ostrogoth mercenary commander ravaging Thrace named Theodoric Strabo so to combat Strabo, Zeno had the King of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Pannonia Theodoric the Amal, better known as “Theodoric the Great” as well as a new raiding enemy in the Danube being the Bulgars attack Strabo but Strabo managed to beat the Bulgars, though he soon enough met his end by falling off his horse into a spear and with Strabo’s death, his men joined the army of Theodoric the Amal who thus united the Ostrogoths and soon enough became a problem for Zeno himself going as far as making plans to start a rebellion within the Byzantine Empire and establishing his own kingdom there.

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Theodoric the Amal “the Great”, King of the Ostrogoths (r. 475-526)

It was also in the reign of Zeno where this story’s protagonist Flavius Petrus Sabbatius was born, and before being known as “Justinian”, this story will call him first as “Petrus”. Now Petrus was born on May 11, 482 in the village of Tauresium somewhere in the Balkans (today North Macedonia) to a simple family of peasants, his mother’s name was unknown while his father was a low-ranking military officer also named Sabbatius but not much is said about him in history, so soon enough in this story’s case he would die possibly in battle. Petrus was a Roman citizen of Thracian and Illyrian origins and coming from a rural area, he did not grow up educated as a child though when it came to language, he was a native Latin speaker coming from a Latin speaking area which is why as emperor, he would be the last Latin speaking one, the rest after him all being native Greek speakers. Before Petrus was born, his uncle Justin, the brother of Petrus’ mother migrated to Constantinople to serve in the army after fleeing an attack on their village by barbarian hordes- in this story’s case the Foederati army of Theodoric Strabo- sometime in 473. History does not say when Justin travelled from his village to Constantinople, but here we will put the date 474 wherein Justin arrived at Constantinople and at the same time, we will go with the version of Dovahhatty’s first Byzantium series video wherein Justin arrives at Constantinople to join the army at the exact time Emperor Leo I was dying in January of 474 from dysentery.

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Tauresium, Macedonia, birthplace of Justinian, 482

Justin was born back in 450 and was 24 by the time he arrived in Constantinople with a few friends and as it is said, Justin and his friends came to Constantinople as refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs and when arriving, they soon enough started a business of selling bread to support themselves and the worst part was that they were doing this in these times of difficulty when Basiliscus usurped Zeno and Zeno took back the throne from Basiliscus1. Eventually, Justin joined the elite palace guard force or Excubitors under Zeno but never got far yet up the ranks. Though Zeno was unsuccessful in Church matters, he was successful in dealing with the new troublemaker King of the Ostrogoths Theodoric the Amal and first to satisfy Theodoric, Zeno in 488 gave him the position of Magister Militum or supreme commander of the army in a certain area but Theodoric would still continue being problem that he almost came so close to besieging Constantinople though Zeno here with the help of his wife Ariadne made a deal with Theodoric asking him to leave and head to Italy instead and be Odoacer’s problem as here Zeno started feeling Odoacer would be problem when hearing Odoacer was planning to invade the Byzantine Empire so to stop this, Theodoric immediately headed west with his army to attack Odoacer at his capital, Ravenna.

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Eastern Roman Excubitor (elite palace guard)

As emperor meanwhile, Zeno remained unpopular till his death in 491 due to his Isaurian origins seeming uncivilized to the people of Constantinople, his failure to prevent the western empire’s fall and to keep the Church unity together, and because of his thuggish style of ruling wherein he chose to always strike first thus spending his reign picking fights with everyone rather than using peaceful solutions except with Theodoric. Zeno was at least able to stay in the throne up to his death at age 66 without losing it another time, though his death was not entirely peaceful as it was caused by his epilepsy which he had developed later on in life though a 12th century legend says that Zeno was died by being buried alive by the people seeing an opportunity to kill him when Zeno fell sick, which had been Dovahhatty’s version of Zeno’s death. No matter how unpopular Zeno was as emperor, he was able to save the eastern empire from a full-scale invasion of Theodoric the Amal- who in 491 continued besieging Odoacer at Ravenna- and was able to clean up the political instability that plagued his reign. Since the previous story’s outcome does not continue here wherein Zeno and Ariadne’s son Leo II lived on, in this case here since Zeno and Ariadne had no more children following Leo II’s death, it was up for Ariadne to choose the new emperor and the man she chose was one of the Silentiarii or the court secretaires that worked directly for the empress and knowing this man named Anastasius quite well, Ariadne chose to marry him. Meanwhile with Zeno dead, the people shouted in the streets demanding “give us an Orthodox emperor, give us a Roman emperor” for they were tired of violent rulers which the past 3 being Leo I, Basiliscus, and Zeno were and at the same time they did not want a thuggish Isaurian who compromised with heretics which was Zeno and true enough, the people got what they wished for as their new emperor Anastasius I was well refined man, intelligent, energetic, and cool headed, but also a skilled economist opposite of the warrior Zeno was, and already 60-years-old, Anastasius was still very handsome, tall, and fit with one eye blue and the other one black which is why he has the nickname Dicorus meaning “mismatched eyes”, in other words he had heterochromia. 

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End of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus surrenders to Odoacer in Ravenna, 476
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Constantinople, Eastern Roman Imperial capital
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Legend of Zeno’s death by being buried alive, 491
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The world after 476, Odoacer’s new kingdom in Italy (brown)

Anastasius was born in the port city of Dyrrachium (today’s Albania) in 431 and was a speaker of Latin and here in this story, going with Dovahhatty’s version, when Anastasius’ mother was pregnant with him, she was struck with a curse but mostly overcame it before giving birth to him but the remains of this curse would stay with Anastasius later on in life and it affected him by secretly being a Monophysite in faith which was unpopular especially with the people of Constantinople which made them previously hate Zeno as he sided with them and thinking Anastasius would be pure Orthodox, little did they know that he was a Monophysite heretic deep inside.

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Anastasius I Dicorus, Byzantine emperor (r. 491-518)

At this time, politics in Constantinople was represented by 2 chariot racing teams, the blues and greens and though they cheered for their respective colors during races in the Hippodrome, these factions stood for two different ideologies; the blues stood for the ancient traditions, Orthodox faith, and conservative values while the greens stood for more radical values and the Monophysite faith and Anastasius as a secret Monophysite strongly supported the greens but shortly after becoming emperor, there had been a more legal candidate for the throne, Zeno’s younger brother Longinus who Ariadne previously considered marrying and Zeno’s Isaurian troops still in the city went on a rampage- as they usually did when drunk- in early 492 by bribing off both blues and greens to riot and proclaiming Longinus as their emperor though Longinus’ rebellion failed and he was exiled to Egypt but this led to the outbreak of war against the Isaurians. For the next 5 years, the Byzantine troops of Emperor Anastasius besieged the remaining Isaurian troops at their strongholds in the mountains of Isauria in Asia Minor and in this Isaurian War, Justin who would later be emperor rose up the ranks becoming a general, but here he too would suffer a fatal war wound on his chest. With the Isaurian War over in 497, Justin now promoted to a general returned home to his village in Tauresium seeing his nephew, his sister’s son Petrus for the first time and here Justin decided to adopt him and take him to Constantinople to be educated in the best of ways. It is not clear though when the young Petrus Sabbatius (Justinian) was brought over to Constantinople but it was clear that he was born as a peasant in the village of Tauresium though when creating this story through our role-playing, Justinianus here claims that the young Petrus travelled with his uncle Justin to Constantinople at age 15. No matter what version may be the right one here, Justin being uneducated and in fact illiterate saw hope for his nephew seeing he had potential to be a highly educated person who would bring pride to their family. When moving into Constantinople, Petrus would not only become highly educated, he would develop a dream like no one else had, a dream to restore the provinces of the west that fell to barbarian powers back to Roman rule, a dream to make the Roman Empire great again like it was when it was the supreme world power in the 2nd century. It was in Anastasius I’s reign when the dreadful 5th century ended and so did the 6th century begin in what everyone thought would be hopeful and when ruling the empire, Anastasius’ top priority was the economy so it would one day have enough funds to regain the lost western provinces.

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Follis coin issued by Anastasius I

In reforming the economy, Anastasius made policies to make sure everyone paid taxes in coin and to do this he had to devalue the currency in order to make coins of lesser value which led to the creation of the bronze coin or Follis so that everyone could pay up. In addition, he also abolished the unpopular tax for everyone who passed by Constantinople, abolished the unpopular tax that hurt the poor, but to literally save up, Anastasius cracked down on spending on games and public entertainment, which made him quite unpopular. In the meantime, Theodoric the Amal successfully took over Ravenna from Odoacer in 493 and after a failed negotiation, Theodoric killed Odoacer in front of everyone in the palace, thus Theodoric took over Italy founding his Ostrogothic Kingdom under the Amal Dynasty, his dynasty. Back in the east, when everyone thought the new century would be a hopeful one, Byzantium’s eastern neighbor the Sassanid Persian Empire in which they had always been paying tribute to for the longest time to avoid war demanded the Byzantines to double the tribute paid to them as the Sassanids ran out of funds to defend their northern borders against the same nomadic Huns that terrorized both Romans and Persians in the 5th century and here the Huns happened to be the Hephthalites or “White Huns”.

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Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths kills Odoacer in Ravenna, 493

Anastasius meanwhile refused to pay double to the Sassanid ruler or Shah Kavad I claiming that he needed to save money, though this triggered a massive war with the Sassanids at the Byzantine-Sassanid border which would be known as the “Anastasian War” named after the emperor which began in 502 when Kavad’s forces invaded Byzantium taking over the cities of Theodosiopolis and Amida in Armenia and this was the first full-scale Roman-Sassanid War since the failed campaign of Emperor Julian in 363. The Byzantine generals that led the armies against the Sassanids were Justin, Celer, Vitalian, and Anastasius’ nephew Hypatius and no matter how hard both sides fought, the war resulted in no conclusions and in 506, the Byzantines and Sassanids signed a peace treaty that only achieved reverting to having the same borders since the war started 4 years earlier. With the war over, Anastasius had the fortress of Dara at the Sassanid border in Syria constructed to further fortify it. While the war happened against the Sassanids in the east, the empire’s Danube frontier in the Balkans were left exposed allowing new enemies, the Slavs and the Bulgars to invade so in 507 to further protect Constantinople from their raids, Anastasius ordered the construction of the Anastasian Wall spanning from the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea which was a structure similar to Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.

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Diptych of Anastasius I, victory over the Sassanids, 506

It also happened in 507 that over in Gaul, the Franks led by their king Clovis I had defeated the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouille killing the Visigoth’s king Alaric II, thus taking over Southern Gaul and the Visigoth’s capital, Toulouse forcing the Visigoths down to Hispania which they would continue holding on to as most of Gaul fell to the Merovingian Frankish Kingdom. With Clovis’ victory at the battle, Anastasius seeing some potential in him as a Roman ally awarded him the title of Patrician and Honorary Consul and hearing of the Visigoths’ defeat to the Franks, the Ostrogoth king of Italy Theodoric fearing the expansion of the Franks made the fallen Alaric II’s son Amalaric the King of the Visigoths in Hispania being a puppet of Theodoric as Theodoric wanted to rule an entire Gothic Empire of Visigoths and Ostrogoths and with his puppet Amalaric in charge of Hispania, Theodoric now had control of Italy and Hispania.

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Clovis I, King of the Franks (r. 481-511)

Back in the Byzantine Empire, the now old Anastasius’ Monophysite side, which left its mark in his black eye, would be clearly shown when he deposed the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in 512, though this again caused massive riots by the people and with his turn to the Monophysite faith, the general Vitalian rebelled in 513 taking over most of Thrace in the name of Orthodoxy and would turn out to be a difficult target to fight but in 515, Vitalian’s threat was taken care of as he went into hiding and it also happened in 515, that Anastasius’ wife Empress Ariadne had died. Anastasius himself had no sons except for an illegitimate one killed in a riot years ago so it was left to either of his 3 nephews Hypatius, Pompeius, and Probus to succeed him but being indecisive on who to choose, one day in 518 he summoned all of them to a room in the Imperial Palace and in there he hid a letter beneath one of the couches with the word Regnum or “reign” and whoever sat on it would be the next emperor, but none of them did so Anastasius changed the rule saying that the first person who enters the room the next day will succeed him, and that person was Justin, now the commander of the Excubitor palace guard force. The 87-year-old Anastasius I had died on July 9, 518 and was succeeded by Justin who now went from simple peasant to emperor, the true rags to riches story of the century while his nephew Petrus would now be ready to enter civil service after years of extreme education. Anastasius died after ruling the empire for 27 full years and with him died the dynasty of Leo I founded back in 457 but he had left behind a full treasury and together with the stability the empire achieved at the death of Zeno back in 491, the upcoming emperors had all they needed to make the Eastern Roman Empire a world power and other than stability and funding, all that was needed was one man with the drive and here Petrus was one step closer as his uncle Justin was now in power.            

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Map of Europe, 510 during the reign of Anastasius I (Byzantium in yellow)
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Reconstruction of the Anastasian Wall of Thrace, built in 507
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Franks defeat the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouille, 507

In 518, the world changed when the 68-year-old Justin I, a peasant became the Eastern Roman emperor and according to the most notable source of this era, the historian Procopius (who will appear later on), Justin as a peasant in origin was illiterate, uneducated, and unrefined only knowing about war as in career he was nothing but a soldier and though this historian Procopius speaks in such a biased way to the Justinian Dynasty, he seems to be telling the truth here about Justin since having no formal education, the old Justin I was certainly unrefined in character but as emperor he still wanted to do his part in ruling and knowing he cannot rule the empire alone, he depended highly on highly skilled advisors and among them was his now 36-year-old nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius who with his uncle now becoming the emperor he was adopted as his uncle’s successor and from here on, his name would be forever changed to Justinian meaning “son of Justin”.

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Justin I, Byzantine emperor (r. 518-527) by Dovahhatty

The truth behind Justin becoming emperor was that he used the bribe money given to him by Anastasius’ chamberlain to bribe to soldiers to acclaim the chamberlain as emperor, but Justin listening to his nephew’s advice used the bribes to pay off the soldiers to name him emperor and soon enough, Justin at a meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, senate, and city council he was recognized by all as emperor and crowned at the Hippodrome. Just 9 days after coming into power, Justin had his potential rivals assassinated and at the same time, the same general Vitalian who rebelled against Anastasius I returned to Constantinople but was soon enough assassinated by the orders of Justinian fearing Vitalian might rebel against Justin as well. The new emperor though lacking education was a devout and fundamental Orthodox Christian and as emperor, the policies he issued himself all had to do with strengthening the faith of Orthodoxy and persecuting the heretical Arian and Monophysite Christians in the army and state but perhaps his greatest achievement shared with his nephew Justinian in 519, the final resolution of the Acacian Schism with the Church of Rome that lasted for 36 years. In his uncle’s reign, Justinian got his chance to rise up the ranks as first he succeeded his uncle in his position as the head of the palace guard force or the Comes Domesticorum, he was then elevated to the rank of patrician, and then consul in 521 and around this time, Justinian finally met the love of his life, the actress Theodora after he spent all his life alone studying jurisprudence, theology, and Roman history day and night on how to be a great emperor, receiving first rate education in Constantinople.

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Justinian as a young man studying, by Dovahhatty

As a young man, Justinian was quite hot tempered especially as an overly enthusiastic fan of the blue faction in the chariot races and being a leading member of the blues faction, a female friend of his who was a belly dancer named Macedonia who served as an informant for him informed him of a young woman of extreme beauty and perfect shape, an actress from the blue faction named Theodora who was her friend whom she met in Antioch. Now the origins of Theodora are conflicting as the 12th century historian Michael the Syrian claims she was born in Syria while another source claims she is a Greek-Cypriot from Cyprus, though in this story’s case, Theodora was originally from Cyprus and a speaker of Greek born there in 500 during the reign of Anastasius I. Theodora’s father Acacius was a bear trainer for Constantinople’s green faction but he died when she was very young leaving her unnamed mother to raise her 3 daughters and Theodora was the middle child as she had an older sister Comito and a younger sister Anastasia and when they were all very young, their mother desperate for work presented them to the leader of the blue faction to accept her and her daughters as actresses for their faction and from here on Theodora would become a strong supporter of the blues. Now again, the historian Procopius had usually slandered Theodora in her years of being an actress as a prostitute sleeping with men of high and low birth and performing sexual acts on stage as a mime actress, although what this meant was that in that time, actresses were seen as equivalent to prostitutes and were at the bottom of society unlike today where actresses have turned into international celebrities with the best treatment.

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Theodora as an actress by Jean-Benjamin Constant

At 16, Theodora travelled to North Africa and later to Antioch where she grew closer to the Monophysite faith and in 524, she finally met Justinian in Constantinople and in only a few days they fell in love, and for Justinian here, this was the first time in his life that he would be in love with someone, yet he was already 42 years old2! Now the existing law said that patrician men- in which Justinian was at their rank now- could not marry women from outside their rank which included actresses but Justinian knowing that Theodora was destined to be his empress convinced his uncle to pass a new law which decreed that reformed actresses can marry men outside their rank if approved by the emperor and Justin being old and having no legal experience just passed this new law through his nephew’s guidance and this here was Justinian’s first experience in drafting laws which he would be most famous for later on. As for the emperor Justin, he continued paying tribute to the Sassanids and tried maintaining peaceful relations with the Ostrogoth King of Italy Theodoric the Great that Justin even took in Theodoric’s son-in-law Eutharic to Constantinople and made him a consul in 519 though he died in 522. Though the actual war with the Sassanid shah Kavad I was at a halt, the Byzantines and Sassanids resolved to fighting proxy wars that involved religion and Justin as well as his nephew Justinian were always at it to defend Orthodox Christianity and one of them involved a faraway land in the south of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Kingdom of Himyar (today Yemen), a Sassanid client state wherein the contemporary chronicler John Malalas (491-578) claimed that Byzantine Christian merchants there were robbed and put to death by their Jewish king and seeing the torture victims return to Constantinople, Justin listening to his nephew Justinian’s advise3 sent word to the Christian king Kaleb I of the Kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia to invade the Himyarite Kingdom.

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King Kaleb I of Aksum

In 525, the Himyarite Kingdom was destroyed when Kaleb I crossed the Red Sea with the help of Byzantine ships and invaded Himyar annexing it to Aksum and making it Christian. Back with the Sassanids, the shah Kavad I asked if his youngest 12-year-old son Khosrow be adopted by Justin to secure his legitimacy over Khosrow’s older brothers who Kavad did not favor though Kavad also believed that if his son were adopted by Justin then Khosrow would inherit both Sassanid and Byzantine empires as Kavad knew that Justin had no male heir, but little did Kavad know that Justin’s nephew was destined to succeed his uncle. Now the one thing many may not know about was that Justinian had something like a step-brother which would later be his Persian mortal enemy ruler Khosrow although Justin did not adopt Khosrow as a son but instead as a barbarian hostage, and Justin’s treatment of Khosrow insulted Kavad making him begin making preparations to wage war against Byzantium again. Nothing much is said about the time when Justinian grew up with a step-brother he so despised so this part of the story will be made up here and since Justinian was way older than the teenage Khosrow, they had never really gotten along as Justinian was already too busy in actually running the empire for his uncle except that young Khosrow here would learn the art of statecraft the Byzantine way in Constantinople. Since the schism with the Papacy in Rome was already solved back in 519, between 525 and 526, the pope John I visited Constantinople to re-crown Justin I then spending Christmas and Easter with him but when returning to Italy later, Pope John I was immediately thrown in prison by the now extremely paranoid King Theodoric for the reason of favoring the Byzantine emperor over Theodoric, the pope would then die within only a few days of being in prison.

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Pope St. John I

Now Theodoric was an extremely devout Arian Christian and he ruled his Kingdom of Italy very successfully even more than it was under Odoacer before him as if it were like the Western Roman Empire again in terms of culture considering Theodoric grew up in Constantinople educated by the general Aspar who basically controlled the empire before his death in 471, except the people of Italy who were mostly Roman resented the rule of Theodoric especially since he and his army were Arian Christians while most of his people were Catholic-Orthodox and now at an old age, the paranoid Theodoric began persecuting Orthodox Christians in his kingdom in order to assert the dominance of his Arian faith in it though in 526, Theodoric the Great died and was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric, the son of Theodoric’s daughter Amalasuintha and the same Eutharic who died in Constantinople in 522 and with Theodoric’s death, the Ostrogoths of Italy lost control over Visigoth Hispania. Around the same time as Theodoric’s death was the massive earthquake of Antioch I 526 that came close to destroying the entire city and killing some 250,000 people though Justin here responded by sending money to have the city rebuilt in which its process would take years. Justin however only named Justinian his successor in April of 527 as Justin was already close to death, though Justinian had already been running the empire for quite some time as Justin had already gone senile and on August 1, 527 the 77-year-old Justin I died of his war wound from back in the Isaurian War of the 490s and now it was Justinian’s time to rule as the sole Roman Augustus with Theodora as his empress.

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Map of the Sassanid Empire (yellow) beside the Byzantine Empire (blue)
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Map of the Himyarite Kingdom (right in red) annexed to the Kingdom of Aksum (left), 525
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Theodoric the Great’s Kingdom (pink), Burgundian and Vandal Kingdoms (dotted), Byzantine Empire (purple)
Theodoric enters Rome in the year AD 500
Theodoric the Amal “the Great” in Ravenna

The Early Reign of Justinian I (527-540)

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It was here on August 1, 527 when Justinian I came to the Byzantine throne ruling as a “palace emperor” since for all these years he had trained to be emperor, he met talented people along the way that he knew could run the empire without him having to be everywhere and these talented men he met along the way included a brilliant young general named Flavius Belisarius who here at only age 22 was appointed as Magister Militum or master of the army. Belisarius was born in 505 in Thrace (part of today’s Bulgaria) and like Justinian, was of low birth but already at a young age, he joined the army and soon enough his talents were recognized by both Justinian and his uncle Justin who was still emperor then.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great (aka Flavius Petrus Sabbatius)

Belisarius though only became an active commander 3 years later in 530 but prior to that, he had come up with a totally innovative development for the army, the creation of the Bucellarii cavalry unit and making them the core of the army and these cavalrymen were equipped with both composite bows and lances in battle. Right when Justinian came to power in 527, Belisarius now appointed as a general was assigned with a legal assistant and secretary, which is this story’s villain Procopius, a Palestinian Greek from Caesarea born in 500 who would later study law at the academy of Berytus (Beirut) and later at Constantinople and though he admired the talent of Belisarius, he envied Justinian for becoming emperor and not him as Procopius thought that if Justinian who was of low birth could become emperor, and so could Procopius, and in the case of this story, this is why Procopius would slander Justinian and anyone close to him in the works he wrote.

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Flavius Belisarius, Byzantine general

It also happened that when Justinian succeeded Justin to the throne, the Sassanid shah Kavad I forced the people of the Kingdom of Iberia (Georgia) at the border of the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires to convert to Zoroastrianism but their king back then fled to Justin I’s Byzantium to make peace though this here insulted Kavad who was later even more insulted when his son Khosrow was adopted by Justin not as a son but a barbarian hostage so in retaliation against the Byzantines, Kavad invaded through Syria and when Justinian became emperor, he immediately sent his generals Belisarius and Sittas east to defend the border. Sittas is someone of obscure origins but together with Belisarius, they had met and became friends with Justinian serving under him as part of the Excubitor imperial guard force in Justin I’s reign and just like with Belisarius, Justinian too saw great talent in Sittas. Initially, Belisarius and Sittas’ forces were defeated by the Sassanids but not giving up, they both expanded their army with the use of Hunnish mercenaries as well as the barbarian people from the far north (probably Scandinavia) which were the Heruli, as well as the Arab people that lived at Byzantium’s border at the Arabian desert which were the Ghassanids who by Justinian’s orders converted to Christianity. Belisarius knew that the Sassanids and in fact all enemies of the empire would lose to fear due to the presence of the Huns as it had been tried and tested in history such as when the Western Roman general of the 5th century Flavius Aetius effectively used them to defeat the barbarian invaders in Gaul and seeing how much fear the Hunnish cavalry could bring, Belisarius made these Huns occupy half of the cavalry with the other half being his Bucellarii.

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Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry

When heading east, the army split up with Sittas heading to Armenia to fight the Sassanid forces there while Belisarius was to head to Syria where the main forces of Kavad attacked from. In 530, Belisarius and his men set themselves up at the same fortress of Dara built by Anastasius I two decades ago. According to Procopius, before the battle began, the Sassanids sent one of their strongest warriors to challenge Belisarius in single combat but rather than Belisarius, his slave who he personally trained in combat to be a wrestler named Andreas fought and killed this Sassanid warrior and killed another one the next day, and though this may be fictional, in this story’s case it was true and here Andreas rather than being a slave was a simple warrior from the mountains of Isauria working under Belisarius and his feat in single-handedly taking down two of the toughest Sassanid warriors made him make a name for himself. The actual battle soon enough began when the Sassanid forces mostly consisting of their Cataphract cavalry and their allies, their client kingdom being the Lakhmid Arabs of the desert to the south of them charged at Belisarius’ men but Belisarius responded by just laughing as he had his men already dig up trenches to prevent the cavalry from clashing on them and when the Sassanids got trapped in the trenches, the Huns and Heruli cavalry of Belisarius charged straight at the Sassanids, thus the Byzantines and their allies won the Battle of Dara despite this day being extremely hot (45 oc).

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Sassanid and Byzantine forces clash at the Battle of Dara, 530

At the same time as Belisarius won this decisive victory, Sittas in the north won another one against the Sassanids at the Battle of Satala in Armenia and both victories further infuriated Kavad so in retaliation, Kavad sent 20,000 of his cavalry forces to attack the now vulnerable Antioch that had just been devastated by the 526 earthquake. Before the Sassanids arrived in Antioch, Belisarius had his men counter-attack them, though some of the older officers that envied his talent charged ahead without orders and got crushed by the Sassanids here at the Battle of Callinicum in 531 leaving Belisarius to take care of the battle but still failed as these officers had already ruined it. Belisarius at least survived while the Sassanid forces had to return east to their empire as their ruler Kavad here in 531 had died. Belisarius then returned to Constantinople while Justinian with Kavad’s death was relieved that he could send his step-brother Khosrow who he despised so much back to his empire to die as Khosrow’s older brothers were all staging a civil war against him.

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Khosrow I, Shah of the Sassanid Empire, unknown step-brother of Justinian I

Now in the past years that Khosrow had lived in the imperial palace of Constantinople, despite not being treated as part of the imperial family, he saw it with his own eyes how much gold was left behind in the treasury by Anastasius I which he then saw as the best way to cripple Justinian and his ambitions which Khosrow already knew Justinian had. In 531 when Khosrow returned to his empire, he managed to defeat all his brothers and ruled the empire even stronger than is father did after learning some empire management skills from the Byzantine court and knowing how much gold the treasury had, he demanded that Justinian pay him 11,000 pounds of gold a year as this was to be an “eternal peace”, and Justinian here agreed to it as long as the Sassanids used it to pay off the Huns at the northern border to keep them further away from the Byzantines.

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Map of the Battle of Dara, 530
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The Fortress of Dara, Byzantine-Sassanid border

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Dara, 530 (Kings and Generals).       

Back in Constantinople, Justinian had a pretty good start as emperor and even if he did not need to be on the battlefield, he knew he could count on his generals like Belisarius and Sittas as well as a barbarian named Mundus, the son of the king of the Gepids, the Germanic tribe settling in Pannonia (Hungary) who in fact was even a descendant of the Scourge of God Attila the Hun from the 5th century. The Gepids here had made peace with Justinian by sending Mundus to him to be appointed as Magister Militum and was charged with fighting off the raiding Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans and when Belisarius was demoted after his failure at the Battle of Callinicum in 531, Mundus replaced him as commander of the eastern forces.

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6th century power couple, Justinian I and Theodora

Justinian meanwhile still continued spending all day and night at meetings, reading up on new strategies, studying his empire’s borders, and inspecting Constantinople seeing what new buildings had to be built that he barely had any time for parties or for a little fun all while his younger sister Vigilantia was his polar opposite. Now, no one would really know that Justinian did indeed have a sister but this story here will try to tell a bit more about her even if history does not say much and in this version, Vigilantia, born in 490, came to Constantinople with her mother some months after Justinian did back in 497, though being only 7 when she moved, she was too young to experience the hard life of a peasant unlike Justinian who did as he was already 15 when he moved to Constantinople. Unlike Justinian who was hard working and ambitious, Vigilantia was a wasteful glutton who spent all day drinking, partying, and sleeping with other men- at least in this version- though she had married a man named Dulcidius, possibly an aristocrat and would have 3 children, the eldest son named Justin the Younger born in 520 in Constantinople and was named after his grand-uncle and founder of the dynasty Justin, the second one being Marcellus, and a daughter named Praejecta. Shortly after becoming emperor, Justinian already launched one of his greatest projects in which he would be most remembered for throughout the ages, the Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws” completed in 529 by a talented jurist he appointed named Tribonian who had extensive knowledge of Roman laws all the way back to the first emperor Augustus Caesar (r. 27BC-14AD) and this compilation of all laws going back to Augustus’ reign was to codify all Roman laws into one book by removing all conflicting laws and making them all consistent to each other; this book would then be divided into 3 parts first being the Codex which would be all the laws issued by Justinian, the Digest consisting of laws from the past emperors, and the Institutes which would be a handbook for all students of laws.

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Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis

Some of the laws made by Justinian here forbade civilians from carrying weapons like axes and spears as they could incite rebellion with it but this happened to be unpopular with many of rural citizens who live to carry weapons, while other laws here stated that no one could make rivers or lakes their private property. These laws at the same time highly favored Orthodox Christians and was to convince all to convert to Orthodoxy as it disapproved of the beliefs of Arians, Monophysites, Pagans, and Jews and Justinian himself indeed hated the Jews for feeling they were above everyone else especially in economic matters and part of his policy was to ban Jews from the army as the army was really made up of Christians- mostly Orthodox- fighting for their faith, on the other hand Justinian had also closed down one of the empire’s last Pagan academies in Athens to stop the spread of their beliefs that contradicted Orthodoxy while at the same time he issued laws for teachers to teach history in the form of Christian propaganda.

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Stamp of Tribonian presenting the Code of Laws to Justinian, 529

Justinian not having any ties to the aristocracy of the empire appointed people based on merit and absolute loyalty to him and not by connections and wealth and these included the jurist Tribonian and the finance minister John the Cappadocian, a man of low birth from Cappadocia in Asia Minor but with strong administrative skills and ruthlessness as well and no matter how corrupt he was by torturing rich tax payers forcing them to pay and this sure indeed filled up the treasury more especially since Justinian was to pay 11,000 pounds of gold a year to Khosrow. For the longest time, the rich including Jewish merchants had found ways to get exempted from paying taxes while the poor were usually hurt and Justinian knowing what it was like coming from the lower classes of society knew that the rich could no longer escape this privilege, though this surely made him unpopular with the rich. As for Theodora now as empress, feeling insecure because of her low birth, she wanted to assert her power by strongly promoting court ceremony practices making everyone that met her bow down lying face-down on the floor in front of her and her husband and to kiss their rings and that none could question her, only she could.

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Justinian I and Theodora at the imperial court

People that met her and Justinian no matter how high in society they were including senators had to wait in line in a stuffy room in the palace before it was their turn and with such difficulty just to meet the imperial couple, these said officials and senators felt like they were treated as slaves. On the other hand, Theodora took part in almost every meeting Justinian had advising him too in legal matters that Justinian called her his “partner in his deliberations” and part of Theodora’s acts as empress was in making Justinian issue laws that further protected women’s rights especially for actresses like her before. Meanwhile in early 532 at the same time as Justinian and Khosrow settled peace, the chariot races began civil unrest in Constantinople when the blue and green factions continuously beat each other up in the streets and for inciting such violence, Justinian ordered the blue a green faction leaders hanged but the execution true enough failed for 2 leaders who later hid in a church while the mob rushed to Hippodrome for a day of a another chariot race wherein Justinian and Theodora sat in the imperial box but to their surprise the entire mob shouted “Nika!” or “victory!” over and over again, though Justinian at first did not bother, instead he tried negotiating with them but it did not work.

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John the Cappadocian, Finance Minister of Justinian I

The mob then in a rampage burned everything in Constantinople, liberated prisoners, and damaged property and part of the buildings burned included the old Hagia Sophia church and the Baths of Zeuxippus, one of the structures that predated Byzantine Constantinople in 330. Wanting to get over the violence, Justinian asked the mob what they wanted and they demanded that John the Cappadocian and Tribonian who they all saw as corrupt be fired though when getting back to the palace, Justinian found out that a number of senators had paid off the people to riot so in return he fired these senators and spoke to the people again that he too fired John and Tribonian in which he actually did not and as the people continued rioting, Justinian resorted to threatening to kill them all if they did not stop. The people true enough did not stop and even chose to elevate the old Hypatius, nephew of Anastasius I as emperor who almost came to power in 518 if he sat on the chair with the note but here Hypatius did not want the throne although once he was lifted in the streets, he had a change of heart.

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The Green Faction of Constantinople at the Hippodrome, by Akitku

At the palace, Justinian was more terrified of what was to come that advisors told him to just let go of the throne, leave Constantinople, and take it back one day but Theodora stepped in convincing Justinian that the riot needs to be dealt with once and for all. At this time, Mundus who was in charge of the east returned to Constantinople while Belisarius was in the city too and here another court official of Justinian, the Armenian eunuch Narses who in this story’s case according to Justinianus was originally a slave from Armenia born in 478- like in real history- and bought by Justinian during his uncle’s reign. Narses now possessed a great amount of natural intelligence but lacked education and here in 532 he was assigned to bribe off some of the rioters most of them being blues while Belisarius and Mundus were tasked to put the Hippodrome on lockdown before they send their troops inside it. With the rioters trapped in the Hippodrome, Belisarius’ and Mundus’ men including Hunnish mercenaries killed up 30,000 rioters in a single day while the leaders either got their property and wealth confiscated, exiled, or executed, and Hypatius here was executed while John and Tribonian were reinstated to their positions. Seeing Constantinople in ruin, Justinian was sad but at the same time saw the ruins of the city as an opportunity and making the most of the destruction, he ordered that the city be rebuilt in a grander scale like never before, and the building here he so desired to rebuild was the church of the Hagia Sophia.

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Justinian I and Theodora surrounded by senators and courtiers
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Chariot racing in Constantinople
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Massacre of the 30,000 at the Hippodrome ending the Nika Riot, 532
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Justinian and Theodora inspect the aftermath of the Nika Riot, 532

Watch this to learn more about the Nika Riots, 532 (Invicta).

         

Over in the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa based in Carthage, their king Hilderic, the son of the Vandal king Huneric (r. 477-484) and the grandson of the Vandal Kingdom’s founder Genseric (r. 428-477) was an ally of the Byzantines and when coming to the throne in 523, he maintained friendly terms with Justin I and later with Justinian following Justin’s death. Hilderic happened to be a half-Roman, his mother was Eudocia, the daughter of the Western Roman emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) and a granddaughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) making Hilderic one of the last descendants of the Theodosian Dynasty, and the Vandal Kingdom despite being a barbarian power adopted Roman customs and were most famous for their navy as the rulers of the Western Mediterranean waters.

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Hilderic, King of the Vandals of North Africa (r. 523-530)

The Vandals had been Arian Christians like many of the barbarian powers, but Hilderic due to his Roman half tolerated the Orthodox-Catholic religion in his kingdom which angered his cousin Gelimer who in 530 deposed and imprisoned Hilderic which angered Justinian in Constantinople even more as Hilderic was his friend who had come to Constantinople a few times before. Gelimer responded to Justinian telling him to mind his own business as North Africa was not his kingdom and as for Justinian, this was a perfect excuse for him to start a war as his reign was marked by the policy of “Intervention Imperialism” meaning that he would invade a land when they were at conflict with each other wherein he would take the side of one faction. To put it short, Justinian despite having the dream to take back all the western provinces the Romans lost to the barbarians would invade these lands if given any reason to do so unlike other rulers of the past who would strike first and invade all because they wanted to, but for Justinian, he thought invading when there is a perfect reason was the smart move. In the past, there had been two attempts to reconquer the Vandal Kingdom and return it to Roman rule and both failed, first was in 460 when the western emperor Majorian (r. 457-460) built a fleet in Southern Hispania but had never even left the port as traitors in his army convinced by the Vandal king Genseric burned the fleet before it even left and in 468, the eastern emperor Leo I launched a fleet of 1,000 ships carrying 100,000 men to invade Carthage but before the battle, the fleet’s commander Basiliscus- who usurped the throne in 475- agreed to a peace with Genseric resulting in half the fleet destroyed and the mission failing. Justinian here in 533 now knew he wouldn’t fail especially since he assigned Belisarius for the job and that he had a full treasury due to John the Cappadocian’s efforts.

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Gelimer, King of the Vandals (r. 530-534), by Slifer621

To test Belisarius’ ability, he was only assigned with 15,000 men and even more made the bread supply for the army moldy which was to test even how strong the health of the soldiers was and though a few suffered food poisoning, they survived it which was a sign that the whole army was in good health. Before the fleet left Constantinople, Belisarius had a bad start when two drunk Hunnish mercenaries killed a soldier but Belisarius quickly had these Huns executed and the mission proceeded as the fleet sailed west directly to Carthage. At the same time, Justinian funded a revolt in the Italian island of Sardinia which was under the Vandals to scatter the Vandal army in order to make Belisarius meet little resistance in North Africa and before arriving in the area of Carthage, Belisarius settled in Ostrogothic held Sicily first to resupply as Justinian persuaded the regent ruler Amalasuintha who he was in good terms with to use the island and from there, Belisarius quickly proceeded to North Africa landing there and crushing the Vandal forces. Hearing Belisarius had arrived, the Vandal king Gelimer killed Hilderic in prison thinking Belisarius might reinstate him and afterwards ordered his army of 25,000 men to attack Belisarius’ forces at the salt flats outside Carthage in what would be the Battle of Ad Decimum.

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Belisarius and his army in North Africa

Here, Gelimer divided the army with his brother to attack Belisarius on both sides of the salt flats but the brother was soon enough killed by Belisarius’ Bucellarii which therefore distracted Gelimer when the main battle came and as he grieved his brother’s death, Gelimer’s forces were soon easily crushed by Belisarius’ 15,000 men causing Gelimer to flee west as Belisarius without any resistance proceeded to Carthage and took over it taking over the palace right in time for the feast prepared for Gelimer’s victory but since Gelimer had lost, Belisarius sat at the throne for the feast. When taking over Carthage, Belisarius ordered his men not to plunder or kill anyone as Justinian wanted to show the local Roman people of Carthage that the Eastern Romans were to be seen as their liberators not oppressors and true enough when Belisarius took over Carthage, the people cheered as they despised living under the rule of the Vandals, especially Gelimer. However, Gelimer was still around and had grouped up with his other brother Tzazo who was previously in charge of Sardinia but kicked out when the Byzantine captured it and together, they marched to Carthage attempting to take it back, but Belisarius and his men charged out of Carthage clashing again with Gelimer at the Battle of Tricamarum at the end of 533 and again Gelimer lost his brother as Tzazo was killed in battle.

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Byzantines take over Carthage from the Vandals, 533

Gelimer attempted to flee to the mountains of Numidia but realized he was in hopeless situation, so instead he turned himself into the Byzantines as Belisarius allowed him to be spared, though Belisarius came in too late to save their ally Hilderic who had just been killed in prison. As 533 ended and 534 began, Belisarius had won the war, recovered all the wealth the Vandals looted from back in 455 when they sacked Rome including the Menorah stolen from the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70AD. Though the Vandal Kingdom had been destroyed after only less than a century of existing and put under the direct rule of the Byzantines, the parts of North Africa further inland were under independent Moorish states that refused to be ruled by the Byzantines so to deal with them, another general named Solomon was sent to fight them in battle which later in 534 was able to crush the Moors and annex their lands all the way to what is now Morocco to the empire as Belisarius returned to Constantinople to celebrate his triumph. In 534, Northwestern Africa was annexed to the Byzantine Empire and now connected by land to Egypt while Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands too were annexed, the Vandals thus were expelled from North Africa eventually fleeing back to where they came from in today’s Germany. Back in Constantinople, Belisarius was given a triumph and in fact the first one in ages wherein he and his army marched through the city’s main street or the Mese with the spoils of war from North Africa including the Menorah while Gelimer too was paraded here and brought before the feet of Justinian and Theodora wherein Gelimer feeling angry for losing his kingdom whispered to Justinian “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” but was told to shut up, but at least he was able to retire and live out his entire life in Asia Minor. All the wealth taken from the Vandals in North Africa now allowed Justinian to complete his greatest project, the new Hagia Sophia or “Church of Holy Wisdom” in only 5 years since construction began in 532.

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Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, architects of the Hagia Sophia

In December of 537, with all the wealth taken from North Africa, the complete structure of the Hagia Sophia including its massive dome was completed under the architects Anthemius of Tralles, a Greek-Egyptian and Isidore of Miletus, though the interiors were still bare at its completion as it would take many more years to fill in the mosaics but when entering for the first time, Justinian said out loud “Solomon I have outdone you” referring to the long gone Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem known for its size and beauty and that Justinian’s new creation had outdone it. Now, I would say the hidden meaning to this phrase of Justinian reflected his negative feelings towards the Jews and by building the Hagia Sophia, he could prove that Christianity is more superior but back to the Jewish Menorah, Justinian did not agree to keep it in the Hagia Sophia as it was a Jewish relic, instead he shipped it back to Jerusalem, its original place.

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Map of Justinian I’s Vandalic War, 533-534
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Map of the Battle of Ad Decimum, 533
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Belisarius charges at the Vandals in North Africa
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Belisarius defeats the Vandals at the Battle of Tricamarum, 533
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Hippodrome of Constantinople

 

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Hagia Sophia of Justinian I, constructed 532-537
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Justinian I enters the Hagia Sophia for the first time, 537

Watch this to learn more about Justinian I’s Vandalic War, 533-534 (Kings and Generals).

North Africa may have been restored to Roman rule, but that wasn’t Justinian’s main objective, his main objective was to reconquer Italy, particularly Rome as the fact that the city of Rome, where Roman civilization all began was not under Roman hands was humiliating. For Justinian, he had no reason to invade Italy as its regent ruler Amalasuintha as a loyal ally to him as she heavily practiced Roman customs though it was her son Athalaric that was actually the ruler in name although he did not take his duties seriously and turned to drinking, then in 534 the 18-year-old Athalaric was killed by the Ostrogoth nobility and was replaced by his uncle Theodahad, a nephew of Theodoric the Great. Amalasuintha was later assassinated in her bath later in 535 and this here finally gave a reason for Justinian to invade Italy especially since Theodahad rejected Roman customs making the local Roman population more and more angry thus wanting to be ruled once again by Roman, which was Justinian. In the eastern empire, some of the people of the older generations were alive before the west fell in 476 and therefore wanted to see the west restored to Roman rule, and Justinian was more than happy to please them.

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Theodahad, King of the Ostrogoths (r. 534-536)

Now Justinian began his reign quite unpopular that he was almost overthrown in the Nika Riot of 532 but after his conquest of North Africa in 534, he gained the respect and love of all his subjects and putting Italy back under their rule made him think he would gain their respect and admiration even more. Justinian in Constantinople was later informed of Amalasuintha’s death and Theodahad’s usurpation by an official named Liberius, one of the local Romans of Italy living under Ostrogoth rule that had been alive even before 476 and at this moment, Liberius was one of the many Romans who were alive when the western empire was still around, therefore as an old man, he wanted to die seeing his land under Roman rule again. After receiving Liberius, Justinian knew exactly what to do so again he sent Belisarius on another mission, this time to finally retake Italy and in 535, he departed Constantinople by sea this time with only 7,000 men as the rest of his army was needed to secure North Africa although Justinian also sent Mundus who was in charge of Illyria at this point to invade Italy by land first by recapturing Dalmatia, which was still under the Ostrogoths. 536 was then and odd year, and here Procopius who had joined Belisarius again as his secretary writes that in this year, a thick layer of smoke covered the sky and blocked the sun yet he had no idea what caused this, indeed made this year a bad one of the harvests. Only modern studies explain exactly what caused this event, which happened to be that volcanoes around the world erupted and the wind carried the ash the away causing this unnatural event to happen, but no matter how odd this year was, Belisarius continued to push on with the ambitious reconquest of Italy.

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Ostrogoth Kingdom flag

As for the barbarian general Mundus in 536, he succeeded in taking back Dalmatia from the Ostrogoths but was killed in battle, although his troops still managed to secure their hold there. Belisarius on the other hand swiftly retook Sicily and Southern Italy but the mission had to be aborted for a moment as news reached Belisarius that some of his soldiers in North Africa together with the surviving Vandals rebelled and named one of their own officers named Stotzas as emperor so Belisarius had to rush back to North Africa and here, he easily crushed the revolt forcing Stotzas to flee deep into the Numidian desert. Belisarius then rushed back to Italy to resume his main objective and luckily his troops still held on to what they have retaken so they proceeded to take back the port city of Naples but was proven too hard to be recaptured especially with very limited men but one day, the same old Isaurian wrestler Andreas from Dara4 found an open waterway at the aqueduct which led straight into the city so Belisarius had the hole widened and true enough the Byzantines were able to reclaim Naples with little resistance.

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Belisarius’ army in Italy

Due to Theodahad’s failure to stop the Byzantines’ advance, he was usurped and killed by an Ostrogoth noble named Vitiges who was married to Amalasuintha’s daughter Matasuintha thus ending Theodoric’s Amal Dynasty but as king, he too feared Belisarius’ advance. In Rome itself, Pope Silverius too was tired of having to take orders from the Ostrogoth king, so he sent word to Belisarius inviting him to capture Rome and without a fight, Rome was retaken and put under Roman rule again, but Vitiges was still out there but Rome was no longer the imperial city it was as years under the Ostrogoths as well as 3 attacks on the city in the 5th century (410, 455, and 472) made it a shell of its former self but Belisarius made sure it was to be rebuilt. Vitiges meanwhile marched his army to retake Rome and went as far as cutting off the aqueducts to stop the water supply for the people inside but Belisarius with his brilliance resolved to make a mill on the Tiber River using two boats and was indeed successful in providing grain supply for the people inside. This siege of Rome then went on for an entire year (537-538) and as the Goths tried every trick they could to take the city such as by throwing their dead soldiers to the river to destroy the grain mills or by using siege towers, Belisarius used any trick he could find such as building a chain at the river to stop the bodies and shooting flaming arrows at the siege towers.

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Belisarius’ ship mill, Rome

Vitiges meanwhile was tired of the fighting and as all his men slaughtered by Belisarius’ Bucellarii stationed outside the Aurelian Walls, he tried to negotiate with Belisarius but Belisarius just laughed as he wouldn’t agree to a surrender as he wanted the extermination of the Ostrogoths. After a year, the siege ended as thousands of reinforcements sent by Justinian under a younger general named John the Sanguinary broke the siege forcing Vitiges and his forces to flee using the Milvian Bridge, the same place Constantine the Great won a great victory in 312 where most of Vitiges’ men were slaughtered again by Belisarius’ Bucellarii. As Vitiges fled north to the capital Ravenna, John and his forces headed north to pursue Vitiges and managed to reclaim the city of Rimini wherein he was alter surrounded by Ostrogoths.

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Vitiges, King of the Ostrogoths of Italy (r. 536-540)

More reinforcements however came under the palace bureaucrat Narses, who now had been fully trained to be a general despite being already 60 here and unlike Belisarius who displayed such charisma to his men, Narses was more of a massive sized man with a very uninteresting personality, mostly a skilled manager in terms of military logistics; simply more like a robot doing his job, considering that in this story’s case according to Justinianus, he was slave that was bought, freed, and trained to become a general. Despite both Belisarius and Narses at odds with each other, they both relieved John who was trapped in Rimini surrounded by Ostrogoths by completely surrounding the Ostrogoth forces while Belisarius here lit several campfires in the hills to make it look like they had a bigger army but true enough did not to scare the Ostrogoths while the Byzantine fleet blocked the sea as well and so the Ostrogoths were again defeated and John being saved chose to thank Narses rather than Belisarius who did more than Narses did.

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Narses, Byzantine general

The rest of the Italian cities meanwhile such as Milan (Mediolanum) revolted against their Ostrogoth overlords inspired by the victories of the Byzantines so they requested Belisarius for reinforcements but the Byzantines were too outnumbered to send forces to all these Northern Italian cities. With the people of Milan rebelling, the Burgundians now under the Franks invaded Italy from Gaul to besiege Milan but the people there lacking an army could not hold out against the Burgundians so when getting word of this, Belisarius being too busy in reorganizing Roman control to the parts of Italy that had just been retaken sent John to reinforce Milan and attack the Burgundians but refused to as he only took orders from Narses, although soon enough John caught a fever delaying the mission thus further weakening the people of Milan who then had no choice but to reason with the Burgundians. The Burgundians on the other hand did not agree to the terms and when the gates of Milan were opened to them, they sacked the city killing almost everyone and almost razing the city to the ground while the Burgundians’ overlords, the Franks themselves invaded Northern Italy (the Piedmont region) too but after pillaging the countryside, decided to retreat to Gaul as there was nothing left for them in Italy anyway.

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Burgundian army

In 539, after hearing of the sack of Milan, Belisarius wrote to Justinian the whole story that a lot of it was due to John taking orders from the less effective Narses and in return, Justinian recalled Narses to Constantinople while John was to now follow orders from Belisarius alone and now coming so close to taking back the entire Italy, only Ravenna was left under the control of Vitiges as Milan following the sack was ceded to the Byzantines anyway. Tired again of Belisarius constantly winning victories, Vitiges resorted to the ultimate trick of sending envoys to the Sassanid Empire asking Khosrow I to break the eternal peace with Justinian by resuming the war so that the Byzantines would have to pull out of Italy. Back in Italy, Belisarius got word of Khosrow attacking again so he decided to rush the attack on Ravenna before he would be recalled to the east and Vitiges in fear once again came up with another trick, this time asking Belisarius to accept his surrender and at the same time offering Belisarius the position of the “Western Roman Emperor” restored and Belisarius wanting the fight over accepted it, marched into Ravenna but instead of taking the throne, Belisarius arrested Vitiges as well his wife Matasuintha and here in 540 all of Italy was again put under Roman rule and Justinian’s dream finally achieved and Belisarius once again returned to Constantinople as a hero parading Vitiges and Matasuintha in his triumph though despite Italy taken back, the war left it in ruins which could still be repaired.

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Map of Justinian I’s Byzantine Reconquest of Italy (Gothic War), 535-540
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Procopius’ description of the 536 Dust-Veil
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Belisarius enters Rome and meets Pope Silverius, 536
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Belisarius defending Rome from the Ostrogoths, 537-538, by Amelianvs
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Belisarius’ campfires outside Rimini
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Milan (Mediolanum), attacked by the Burgundians in 539
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Belisarius and Narses arguing on the Italian Campaign, by Amelianvs

Watch this to learn about the Siege of Rome, 537-538 (Kings and Generals).


The Plague Years (540-550)             

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Though Italy had been retaken, Khosrow getting word from the Ostrogoths to attack the Byzantine Empire already made preparations and after only 8 years broke the eternal peace given the reason that the Armenian border people were not satisfied with Justinian’s rule and when the Byzantine forces were sent there to crush the rebellion, the general Sittas from the Persian war a decade ago was killed here in 539 fighting the rebels. Now while the 5-year war at Italy was happening, both Justinian and Khosrow did their own thing whereas as Justinian and Theodora worked on rebuilding Constantinople from the damage caused by the Nika Riots and in the process, they had ordered the decorating of the Hagia Sophia with mosaics and according to Justinianus playing Justinian, she says the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics took over 2,000 men to assemble working 24/7 day and night with one shift consisting of a thousand workers from all over the empire, at the same time too, Justinian ordered the construction of a triumphal column in the square known as the Augusteum outside the Hagia Sophia which had an equestrian statue of him.

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Assembling of the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics

At the same time, Justinian had sent explorers to the far-off places of the world such as Scandinavia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Central Asian steppes, and India to give him reports while at the same time he sent Christian missionaries to convert the people of Nubia south of Egypt. Khosrow meanwhile in this 8-year “eternal” peace tried to imitate Justinian’s Byzantium making his rule mirror that of Justinian’s in terms of sophistication but when asked by the Ostrogoths to invade Byzantine territory in 540, Khosrow broke this “eternal” peace and invaded Syria, capturing Antioch which still had not yet recovered from the 526 earthquake, and enslaved its people, bathed in the Mediterranean himself, and bribed off chariot races in different eastern cities to make the green faction win just to backstab Justinian who had been backing the blues his whole life. Khosrow though did not stay long enough as after asking more tribute money from Justinian which Justinian accepted, Khosrow returned to his empire but was now all set to launch another massive scale war against the Byzantines all while Belisarius was still in Italy. Belisarius was still able to bring Vitiges and Matasuintha to Constantinople wherein Vitiges died shortly after and Matasuintha was then married to Justinian’s cousin, the general Germanus.

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Column of Justinian I with his equestrian statue outside the Hagia Sophia

Belisarius though only remained in Constantinople for 2 weeks5 as the war had already broken out with Khosrow so again, Belisarius was sent to another campaign again with his Bucellarii and Huns and the area the way would take place in would be in Lazica (Georgia), the kingdom Khosrow wanted to annex in order to gain access to the Black Sea to launch an invasion of Constantinople and here Belisarius was to block Khosrow’s invasion. In 541, a political rivalry grew between Theodora and the finance minister John the Cappadocian and as usual with Theodora always wanting to succeed, she had Belisarius’ wife Antonina meet with John to frame him for plotting against Justinian and Theodora and as Justinian discovered this so-called plot of John, he punished John by sending him to Egypt forcing him to be a priest just to please Theodora. At the same time as John arrived in Egypt, something mysterious meanwhile had occurred there at the Mediterranean port of Pelusium wherein one sailor in a ship delivering wheat harvested from the fields of Egypt to Constantinople and this one ordinary day, this sailor felt some pains in his head, arms, and legs but thought it would go away if he just slept it out but at night he could not sleep as he started experiencing nightmares and as he woke up his eyes turned red and not only did he feel these symptoms, the rest of the crew did as well. At this exact same day, they saw a ship crash straight into the harbor of Pelusium and when this crew went to investigate the ship, they saw the entire crew all dead with black spots on their bodies and soon even the crew investigating died of this sickness. In a matter of weeks, this plague had spread across Egypt through the grain shipments and soon enough to all cities across the Mediterranean such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and a lot more when ships containing grain supply headed that way as little did the people at the port know that the ships carrying off the grain supply carried the fleas that caused the illness. 

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Justinian I of Byzantium and Khosrow I of the Sassanid Empire, by Justinianus
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Empress Theodora with Antonina (Belisarius’ wife, left), and Sophia and Vigilantia (right)
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Kingdom of Lazica (Georgia) map
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Port of Pelusium, Egypt
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The Plague begins with sailors in Egypt, 541 by Dovahhatty

       

Back then in the 6th century as this plague spread wherein people quickly started feeling ill, vomit blood, rot from the inside and then died went on, no one knew what it exactly was or what caused it, neither did doctors know the cure for it, and true enough they also caught the illness and died. Procopius here writes that this plague originated in Pelusium, Egypt but modern studies show that it originated far away in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia in Western China as the plague at this time also affected China, India, and the Sassanid Empire and here as Belisarius was preparing to battle the Sassanids in 541, he was met with no fight at all as the Sassanid soldiers were affected by the plague with most of them dying from it.

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Belisarius in the Lazic War against the Sassanids, 541

This plague then was transmitted by fleas that sucked the blood of rats and transmitted it to people when biting them and these fleas then had developed inside the warehouses in Egypt wherein harvested grain had been kept for so long allowing rats to infest it, as well as fleas. The year 542 began in a very normal way for Constantinople as Justinian and Theodora did their thing by continuing the passing of laws, the workers still worked 24/7 on the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics, Narses returned to working in the palace training Justinian’s young nephews Justin and Marcellus to be skilled administrators6, while Justinian’s sister Vigilantia who hadn’t been mentioned in a long time still did as she pleased, stuffing herself up at feasts and drinking all night without a care as her brother worked so hard to keep their empire working but everything changed when the grain ships arrived at the port of Constantinople.

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Roman-Byzantine grain ship by Kate Eller

At first, people no matter who started experiencing light fevers but were advised by doctors in the city market to just not think about it as it will pass and for some, they were able to get over the fever but for others it was worse causing them to fall into a coma while others developed some acute dementia wherein, they were imagining that people were attacking them making these people jump into the waters of the Bosporus and Marmara to save themselves. The doctors then were most worried about these symptoms of dementia as they have never seen or heard of something like this before but when it came to people’s symptoms such as the swollen spots in their bodies, doctors were curious to know about it so they decided to open up the corpses of those who died from this illness (autopsy) and here they discovered that there was bacteria inside these wounds and it was this bacteria that killed the victims but they also found out that if they cut off the bacteria from the patients, the patients would be cured but would soon enough die days later due to the loss of blood.

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Transmission of the Plague of Justinian

As doctors too got infected by cutting up the plague sores, they decided to cover themselves up in full protection cloaks and masks which turned to be working out well for them. In only a few weeks, thousands in Constantinople began dying from this plague that by March of 542, as Procopius had said there had been 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a day in Constantinople alone and the only ones that remained and would forever remain uninfected were the stylites, the hermits living above columns. It was only here when Justinian began to respond to the crisis as at this point, he knew it was not only in Constantinople but in the entire eastern part of his empire and this when he sent word to all the governors around the empire to put all the cities under lockdown forbidding people from leaving their houses in order to stop the spread of the plague but little did Justinian know that the plague did not pass on so much from human to human but from flea to human and when finding out about its source being fleas, he had the a number of grain warehouses set on fire but the plague still kept spreading, and at the same time had the lockdowns lifted after a month as it too did not do anything to stop the plague.

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Stylite hermit

In the next few months, the death toll just kept rising in Constantinople and across the eastern provinces that Justinian had to pass new decrees to handle the plague and these included forcing people to wear masks- which many just chose to die rather than be forced to do something inconvenient by the state, assigning people to search houses for dead bodies each day, and to assign people to the city gates to count the number of dead carted out each day. Seeing the death toll in Constantinople rising himself, Justinian further issued an order that people must wear name tags at their wrists so that if they died away from their homes, they could be identified. With the weeks going by, the death toll still continued rising that bodies had to be buried in mass graves but with no more space left for these mass graves, dead bodies had to be kept inside a military fortress across Constantinople’s Golden Horn harbor but again with so much dead, rooms in this fortress were filled up the ceiling and among the victims was the jurist Tribonian who made Justinian’s code of laws back in 529, and though in real history the plague killed him, in this version Justinianus gives an alternate ending to Tribonian wherein he actually survives the plague but became very weak.

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Death toll of the Plague of Justinian, 542

Though not exactly said in real history but still definitely in the year 542, in which in this story’s case would be in June, the 60-year-old Justinian himself after inspecting the dead from the plague got a fever and in the next day started vomiting and having the same lymph nodes over his body then fell into a coma, thus he tested positive for the plague. He then remained at his bed not moving a muscle and as his fever kept rising, his doctors concluded that even the most powerful of people could still catch it. Theodora meanwhile did not catch it and so did Justinian’s sister Vigilantia, her sons and daughter, and everyone else in the palace but little did Theodora know that she actually caught the plague but was one of the very few rare asymptomatic cases of it- at least in this story.         

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Victims of the Plague of Justinian, 542
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The Plague of Justinian hits Constantinople, 542

Before the plague hit Constantinople, things did not go very well in Italy which had just been retaken by the Ostrogoths as the governor assigned to Ravenna named Alexander was corrupt when using the war funds given to him by Justinian to fund his own personal expenses making the defeated Ostrogoths scattered around Italy uniting under a leader from one of their own named Totila in 541. Though Vitiges was taken to Constantinople wherein he died, the Ostrogoths were still around in Italy and now under Totila they had grown even stronger and at first, they took back the city of Verona for themselves afterwards defeating the forces of Alexander at the Battle of Faventia wherein Alexander fled never to be heard from again.

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Totila, restored King of the Ostrogoths of Italy

Totila and his Ostrogoths won a few more victories before proceeding south in 542, ready to undo everything Belisarius achieved in the past years and although he still failed to take back Rome, he convinced many both Ostrogoths, Roman locals, and even Byzantine soldiers to defect to his side as he convinced them through lies that the Byzantines and Justinian were corrupt when it was only Alexander that was. The plague though hadn’t hit Italy yet but back in Constantinople, Justinian himself was near death that his sister Vigilantia who he was hardly close to him stood by his bedside and so did her 3 children who barely knew him as well7 and of course Theodora and other palace officials including Narses and Liberius were by his bedside too and seeing the worst possible scenarios to come, they were already deciding on who was to succeed Justinian.

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Justinian I as a plague victim, by Dovahhatty

While in a coma, Justinian got a shocking dream which was that Italy again completely fell to the Ostrogoths and this woke Justinian up8 and true enough the first thing he heard when waking came from Narses9 telling him the Ostrogoths have been starting to regain control of Italy under Totila. Justinian had realized he fell into a coma for a month10 but was at first too weak to do anything though as he soon started gaining the control to get out of bed but he came to realize one thing here and this was an effect of the plague which was that his voice changed wherein he started talking with a lisp11, although he at least luckily survived. Theodora here told Justinian that she handled the empire by herself and had successfully prevented all power struggles assuring everyone he would still live but for a total of 6 months including his one-month coma12, Justinian was bedridden and unable to run his empire. By December of 54213, Justinian fully recovered while the plague too had subsided in Constantinople at least, due to the fact that thousands died each day that by this point, there had been about 200,000 deaths in Constantinople alone while in the rest of the empire, the plague still kept spreading. The now recovered Justinian again took a tour of Constantinople fearing he wouldn’t get it again but instead of seeing people suffering from it, he saw dead lying everywhere with their wounds open and puss leaking as well as dead parents holding on to their children that were still alive. On this plague of 542, the contemporary historian John of Ephesus (507-588) writes a more dramatic story of the plague compared to Procopius’ more factual version as here John writes that in the eastern provinces of the empire, there had been villages with only one child surviving, herds of cows running off into wild with no one to herd them, roads completely empty, and ships stuck at sea as their entire crews were dead.

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Aftermath of the Plague of Justinian, 542

543 then would be the worst year ever for the Byzantines as though the plague struck in 542, in 543 all the mess had to be cleaned up one by one by a newly recovered Justinian but despite all the hardships, letting go of all his ambitious projects was the last thing he wanted but with all the damage caused by the plague especially on the economy, considering the extreme death toll on the people of the empire that created a scarcity of workers and many businesses to shut down, all Justinian could do was to put all his projects on hold and resume them another time. First of all, many of the workers who have worked in decorating the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia had died of the plague so Justinian had to put the construction on hold, for the army many had suffered died from it too so he had to now resolve to hiring mercenaries from distant lands not affected by the plague, and as for taking back Italy, Justinian decided that at this point it was not important and would return to it another time. In 543 as well, the Plague of Justinian that had plagued the eastern provinces in 542 had totally become a pandemic when ships arrived in Italy bringing the plague there, soon enough it had spread to the Frankish Kingdom in Gaul when ships arrived in Marseilles, later on in Visigoth Spain and Byzantine North Africa as well, and by 547 it had reached Britain now controlled by different Saxon rulers. Now if the Byzantine Empire and the rest of Europe was hit hard, the Sassanid Empire was hit even harder by the plague that Khosrow did not want to continue his war with Byzantines fearing that his soldiers might pass on the plague to him but over in Byzantium, Justinian knew that with Khosrow now idle, this was the perfect opportunity to attack the Sassanids, not by force but by bringing the plague there.

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Sassanid Empire flag

Here is when history literally changes as in reality, the war between Byzantium and the Sassanids would continue up to 562 without achieving much results again. Prioritizing the western reconquests again, Justinian now decided to get the plague away from his empire by closing the entire eastern border with Sassanids and sending loads plague victims as well as the infected grain supply over to the Sassanid Empire, definitely enraging Khosrow14 but being too paranoid of the plague, Khosrow was now hopeless in facing this new threat from Justinian. Though the Byzantine Empire survived the plague, 1/3 of its entire population died from it but for the entire world, the plague claimed 10% of its population according to modern studies.

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Map of the spread of the Plague of Justinian
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Total death toll of the Plague of Justinian in the Byzantine Empire (1/3 of the population), by Dovahhatty

In 543 as well, Totila managed to retake Naples and again using his tricks to get people to his side, he spared all its citizens when in fact all he wanted was to rule Italy for himself. Justinian in 544 recalled Belisarius from the Persian border- as in this story’s case, the war with the Sassanids was no longer ongoing- and sent him to Italy invading by sea from the south again, except this time Justinian was now growing more jealous of Belisarius’ previous victories and the fact that he had the plague and Belisarius did not as I would think so and due to Justinian’s growing envy, he did not provide Belisarius with funds this time especially since he was using them for the plague’s relief effort in helping citizens affected by it so Belisarius here had to pay for his own soldier’s food and equipment.

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Flavius Belisarius in the 540s, by Amelianvs

Procopius too joined Belisarius again this time and had recorded that this long war and the plague created a great famine in Italy but despite everything happening, Belisarius focused on cleaning up Italy from the Ostrogoths and Totila meanwhile laid siege to Rome again, and like Vitiges before took almost 2 years and only by December of 546 was Totila able to retake Rome for the Ostrogoths when he bribed off Belisarius’ Isaurian troops to let them scale the walls at night and when taking over the city, Totila here showed his true intention to completely level the city and afterwards he proceeded south to hunt down the last of the Byzantines including the same old John the Sanguinary who pained Belisarius years earlier. With Totila away from Rome, Belisarius meanwhile used this as an opportunity to retake it again and by the spring of 547, Belisarius took back Rome once again, though Totila returned but failed to take back Rome, instead he took over the other cities nearby such as Perugia.

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Belisarius re-enters Rome, 547 by Amelianvs

Belisarius now was short of supplies so he had no choice but to return to Constantinople to ask for supplies from Justinian himself but true enough, it was actually Theodora that had now planned to recall him for it was her that was jealous of him and suspicious that Belisarius due to his popularity will one day be acclaimed emperor by the people thus overthrowing her and Justinian. When Belisarius arrived back in Constantinople in 548 however, he was met with a shocking surprise, which was that Theodora had died. Back in 542, Theodora in this case happened to be an asymptomatic victim of the plague but this did not mean the disease would one day have a toll on her life as by this point in 548, she grew extremely weak due to contracting cancer being a long-term effect of the plague and on June 28, she died at age 48. Though before Theodora died, she arranged for her niece Sophia, the daughter of her older sister Comito and the late general Sittas to marry Justinian’s eldest nephew Justin. Now Sophia who in this case was now 20 at this point and had grown up to be very beautiful just like her aunt Theodora was back in her day in the 520s except Sophia unlike Theodora who was an actress, Sophia was a high-society young lady15. Justinian was deeply affected here as the love of his life had died that in this story’s case, Justinian became vegetarian as eating meat and fish would remind him of his days with Theodora enjoying a full meal.

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Last days of Empress Theodora, 548

Though the plague was still going on and off in Constantinople, Justinian decided for once to give up on spending on the plague efforts and instead pour in a lot of gold for a lavish funeral for Theodora and despite how many times Theodora and her Monophysite point of view gave Justinian headaches, there was no other woman than her but strangely the couple despite being married for more than 20 years never had any children but by arranging Justin and Sophia’s marriage, Theodora here considered Justin to be their successor and even if Justinian was not close to him, Theodora thought he was the best choice only because he was the eldest nephew. Now at the funeral at the Church of the Holy Apostles, thousands of mourning citizens- especially women who all thanked her for passing laws protecting their rights- gathered outside while only family members as well as the Patriarch stayed inside for the ceremony and in attendance inside included Germanus with his Ostrogoth wife Matasuintha, Vigilantia again with her 3 children who were now all grown up, Theodora’s sister Comito and her daughter Sophia, and of course Justinian himself who was teared up so much that no one recognized him anymore16. Belisarius who had not trusted Theodora and vice-versa out of respect attended the funeral and so did Narses, Liberius, and Tribonian who in this case survived the plague.

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Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople, burial site of the Byzantine emperors

Justinian being so heartbroken refused to speak to anyone, even Belisarius who had been urgently asking for supplies but soon enough when Justinian was able to speak again, Belisarius decided he did not need to ask for help anymore as now he had grown tired of war and had wanted to retire which Justinian accepted. The retirement of Belisarius was another heavy blow for the grieving Justinian as his most competent and trusted general had to go but at least his second most trusted general and younger cousin Germanus was still around who Justinian now counted on to finish off the reconquest of Italy but in this case, if Justinian were to name his own successor at this point, he would have chosen Belisarius17 but since Belisarius retired, Justinian considered it to Germanus or if not Germanus’ son with his first wife also named Justin but later on in 548, a jealous Armenian general named Artabanes and in this story’s case secretly with Procopius and John the Cappadocian who returned from Egypt following Theodora’s death hatched a plot to kill both Justinian and Belisarius in favor of Germanus. On the other hand, Germanus despite being overly talkative18 was completely loyal and had no intention to take the throne and eventually, it was the other Justin and this case with Justinian’s nephew Justin that uncovered Artabanes’ plot reporting it directly to Germanus who then had the Excubitor palace guards arrest Artabanes who instead of being imprisoned was sent to his death to fight against Totila in Italy with a very small army. In this case, Justinian still had not known of Procopius’ secret plotting19 while John the Cappadocian would remain unpunished, although he would die at this point in history (around 549) like in real history. At the same time back in Constantinople, Justinian’s nephew Justin and Theodora’s niece Sophia married in a not so lavish ceremony in the Hagia Sophia as Justinian still depressed over Theodora’s death and still spending on the plague’s relief effort could not spend on such festivities20. Justinian though considered Germanus as his heir even if Theodora earlier on backed Justin and this was because Justinian saw that Germanus had great skill and that his children will carry the blood of both the Justinian and Ostrogoth Amal Dynasty of Theodoric the Great due to Germanus’ marriage to Matasuintha. Germanus was appointed to lead the continued Italian campaign replacing Belisarius but in 550 when Germanus was still in Thrace, he too contracted the plague that still lived on and died while Matasuintha was still pregnant with their child. With Germanus gone, Justinian replaced him with the now 85-year-old Liberius who was sent to Sicily but due to his age, never achieved much except pacifying the island.

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Justinian I at the funeral of Theodora, 548 by Dovahhatty

Watch this to learn more about the Plague of Justinian (Invicta).


 

II. Part Two

The End of Justinian’s Wars (The Climax, 550-555)- In collaboration with Justinianus

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In the year 550, Justinian was now a sad old man at age 68 and now already 2 years after Theodora’s death, he was still extremely bitter also because the plague ruined his dream, he worked so hard on that he sat all day in the palace’s dining hall drinking and eating food that were of course plant based but one day an old general came, and this was the Isaurian wrestler Andreas who after many years was promoted to become a general. Now this is part of the story wherein our role-playing will come in full form and when creating this story, Justinianus came up with the idea of the vegetarian aging Justinian and due to the plague still happening, the wearing of face masks which Justinian I this case had been wearing one since the plague of 542.

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Justinian I as an old man and plague victim, 550 by Amelianvs

Andreas after serving Belisarius for many years in the Sassanid border, North Africa, Italy, again in the Sassanid border, and again in Italy went to greet Justinian but at first Justinian did not really have any idea on who he was until Andreas introduced himself and his story in the past 2 decades and as both Justinian and Andreas share some drinks of wine, Justinian begins to lighten up and ask Andreas what he has been up to though Justinian still sad tells Andreas how much the plague ruined all his plans and how Theodora’s death made him not want to think about anything anymore. Andreas however gave some hope to Justinian telling him that at least his code of laws made ages ago was something successful and that Hagia Sophia was a definitely a beauty like no other despite the mosaics still unfinished as Justinian only ordered the decoration of the mosaics to be resumed just a year ago21. The next day, Justinian and Andreas met up again and feeling some more relief after getting know Andreas, Justinian takes him for a tour around Constantinople as Andreas having been in the battlefield for years never really got the chance to fully see the imperial capital and even better, this time seeing all its secrets with the emperor himself. The first place the pair head to is the square with Justinian’s column known as the Augusteum beside the Hagia Sophia Basilica Cistern just near the Hagia Sophia which Justinian had just completed and this here was a water supply supported by hundreds of columns taken from the abandoned and destroyed Pagan temples across the empire.

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Basilica Cistern, Constantinople

After this, Justinian brought Andreas over to the now repaired Baths of Zeuxippus that had been destroyed by the Nika Riot in 532 which Andreas remembers being in it helping Belisarius kill off the rioters with his bare hands. Justinian in his usual sadness tells Andreas that it was there in these baths where he and Theodora, still an actress dated privately after they had met back in 524 and Justinian back then being already a high-ranking official in the empire could close down the baths just for him and Theodora to bathe together without seeing them having their intimate moments. In the present setting however, Justinian stopped speaking once he remembered the days he spent with Theodora there and remembering his daily routine to visit Theodora’s tomb, he took Andreas to the Church of the Holy Apostles where Justinian as usual knelt down and wept. At night, both dined at the great palace’s dining hall again where Justinian showed to Andreas his newly developed hobby of writing and singing Orthodox hymns and for Andreas, Justinian surely had a great voice that sang with so much passion yet sadness at the same time. The next day, the pair toured Constantinople again seeing how dead the city had become after the years of plague and by this point, effects of the plague were still felt but at least with 8 years since the height of plague having gone by, people were now more hopeful.

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Belisarius as a senator, 550

Andreas then asks to see Belisarius who was now retired from the army, although a senator but later that day, Belisarius himself returned to the palace and though in real history, Belisarius was no longer active after 548, here in this case in 550, regained the feeling of wanting to lead his troops again especially since he was only 45 here while all the other generals in charge of the campaign like Liberius and Narses were so much older than him. Narses on the other hand was already 72 at this point and had already been sent to Italy to replace Liberius in full command of the troops but lacking full Byzantine soldiers as well as the Bucellarii and Huns Belisarius commanded, Narses in Italy resorted to hiring barbarian mercenaries from the lands northeast of Italy, and these people were the Lombards. Back in the palace, Justinian again fell back into his depression staring out into a window while Andreas and Belisarius were catching up and seeing Justinian spaced out, Belisarius whispers to Andreas how Justinian made him fight Italy without providing funds the last time although Belisarius tells Andreas it was all Theodora’s fault and luckily, she had died. Justinian though had been staring out into that window for about 2 hours now and here Belisarius asks him why and Justinian first still does not speak but after a while he says “I miss her so much”. Belisarius then tells Justinian that he should come with him and Andreas to the high-end tavern next to the palace to get relieved of his sorrows. The 3 men head to the tavern wherein the emperor himself actually shows up in a tavern and here Justinian orders some wine and so does Belisarius but Andreas as a tough mountain orders a barbarian drink known as “mead” and here the 3 have a nice and friendly conversion about the wars they have fought in the past years. Justinian here is happy to talk about how much the Sassanid Empire of Khosrow who is still alive is just totally falling apart from the plague that Justinian brought over to the Sassanids intentionally. As they continued drinking, Andreas gives a speech convincing Justinian to not let go of the dream he has been working to achieve as it is for the good of the empire while Belisarius gives a toast saying “to Italy!” making it clear that they want to resume the war and here Justinian after drinking some wine with friends agrees saying something he never would’ve said. For his entire reign, no matter how hard Justinian worked, he was a palace emperor that never left Constantinople even if Italy and North Africa were retaken but now, at his old age he agrees to go to Italy and finish off the war against Totila. The next day, Justinian with Belisarius and Andreas as well as Justinian’s remaining family members attend a Mass at the Hagia Sophia for the good luck of their mission while Belisarius departed ahead by fleet. As for Andreas, it would take 3 more weeks to assemble his army and here he swore to Justinian that he will personally stand by his side in Italy. Justinian later asks his nephew Justin to meet him at the throne room though Justin comes in with a bad mood thinking it is a waste of time though Justinian asks him to accompany him to Italy but Justin refuses saying he hates travelling but Justinian tells him to consider it as it would be good training for Justin to be an emperor or else Justin would end up a useless glutton like his mother, so Justin then considers the offer. 3 weeks have then passed and Justinian with Andreas head over to their ship as now a fleet of 80 ships were set to again invade Italy though Justinian here feels nervous especially since he’s never been on a long trip by sea before. When at sea, Justinian constantly feels sea sick and here Andreas asks about Justinian’s early life he’s heard of and how he travelled to Constantinople for the first time from his village whether it was by sea or land and Justinian said it was by land. Justinian talks about how hard life was in the Balkans wherein barbarians constantly raided his farm which is what gave him his life-long hatred towards them fuelling his desire to conquer their lands. It was only in 497 at age 15 when Justinian back then as Petrus first met his uncle Justin who returned to his village now with some wealth promising him a better life in Constantinople and together, they travelled for kilometers by foot and then by horse. It was during Anastasius I’s early reign when Justinian settled in the capital having top-grade education provided by his uncle who was then already the imperial guard’s commander. At this time, his sister Vigilantia who was then 7 with their mother followed up and also here, Justinian despite not getting to meet Anastasius in person met his wife Empress Ariadne22.

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Empress Ariadne, daughter of Leo I, and wife of Zeno and later of Anastasius I

Now I would say what inspired Justinian’s great dreams was meeting the aging empress who was the wife of the former Zeno and daughter of the former emperor Leo I and she did have the honor of seeing the Western Roman empire still around while her father was emperor of the east with the great western emperors like Majorian and Anthemius being her father’s co-emperors and she too had the honor of meeting Anthemius himself when he was still in the east. Now this case wherein young Justinian had met Ariadne may be totally made up but I’d say this was a great source of inspiration for young Justinian especially since he met someone who was there to see the days when there was still hope for the west and it was her that inspired him to dream big. Back in the present setting, Justinian felt a bit of frustration when Andreas reminded him of his peasant background but Andreas told him in return to not see it that way as despite his low birth, Justinian was able to achieve a lot and so Justinian admitted here that he never thought he would go this far.     

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The Augusteum of Constantinople with the Hagia Sophia and Column of Justinian

 

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Diagram of Byzantine Constantinople’s Imperial District featuring the Hagia Sophia, Imperial Palace Complex, Hippodrome, and Polo Field

At this point, history is again totally altered wherein the palace emperor Justinian the Great himself finally leaves Constantinople and travels by sea for a total of 3 weeks to Italy, the land he always dreamed of holding on for the empire. Now I would say that if Justinian was so fixated in putting Italy back under Roman hands, his intentions would only be very fitting if he actually went to Italy himself to see the land where Roman civilization all began and so in this case, he actually goes to see his cultural motherland. Justinian though may have had no Roman-Italian blood but being a Roman citizen of Illyrian and Thracian blood from the Balkans and a native Latin speaker, Italy and more particularly Rome itself was seen as his spiritual home. Now after 3 weeks at sea, the fleet carrying Justinian arrived at the Bay of Naples in Italy while Belisarius, in this case arrived much earlier on in Italy’s eastern coast to meet up with the same general John the Sanguinary who pained him over the years who here was still commanding the troops in Italy.

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6th century Byzantine infantryman, by Foojer

At this point in late 550, Naples had already been liberated from the Ostrogoths but just a year earlier, Rome which Belisarius took back again fell again to Totila who using Belisarius’ return to Constantinople managed to once again retake Rome and sack it. When in Naples, Justinian here personally gave orders to his soldiers in taking back Rome and with so passion in his speech, he encouraged them that they are doing this to preserve the great legacy of Rome, of the great emperors of the past like Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Aurelian, and Constantine and after making his speech, Justinian remembered the words the people shouted when wanting victory “Nika!” even if it reminded him of the horrors of the 532 riots, but all the soldiers too shouted the same thing. Justinian accompanied by Andreas and their Excubitor guards marched north to Rome and Justinian having no experience in fighting battles told Andreas he’d just stay at their camp in Janiculum Hill overlooking Rome while Totila who was not in Rome at this time had its walls strengthened to make any Byzantine attempt to retake it impossible but Andreas remembering how he helped Belisarius recapture Naples almost 2 decades ago when the Gothic War in Italy began by using a tunnel, he remembered that the walls could be breached if his men dug beneath it. Andreas’ men including his Heruli mercenaries dug deep beneath the Aurelian Walls and in only a few hours, a part of the walls collapsed and when Justinian woke up from his nap, he noticed that the walls were breached and seeing it, he had a change of heart, thus he mounted his horse and together with the Bucellarii cavalry charged straight into Rome and to their surprise, Totila’s forces were very limited but still eager to face off the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths charged in a frenzy but were all slaughtered by the arrows fired by the Bucellarii as they rode with full speed while Justinian too managed to kill a number of the Ostrogoths before making it to the Roman Forum where Andreas planted the Byzantine banner to signal victory. Now in real history, Rome only returned to the Byzantines once again when the Gothic War ended in 552 but here by the end of 550 with Justinian fighting the battle himself, Rome came back to Byzantine hands much earlier on thus turning the tide of the Gothic War to the Byzantines’ favor.

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Trajan’s Column, Rome

Justinian was overjoyed now that he had finally seen Rome, the eternal city that ruled the greatest empire of its time- in which in reality he never saw- and when in Rome, Justinian and Andreas headed to the Column of Trajan which was now neglected and seeing it, Justinian told Andreas how Trajan has been such an inspiration to him ever since Justinian was barely an adult studying Roman history. What really inspired Justinian most about Trajan was that in his reign (98-117AD), the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent north to south from Britain to Egypt and west to east from Portugal to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea and Justinian here wanted to achieve just that for his own empire and now with Rome taken back and all of Italy almost theirs again, he knew he could achieve his lifelong dream before he died. As Justinian mentioned his imperial dreams, Andreas reminded him of the question of succession and Justinian here said that he had it under control as he asked for his nephew Justin to come over to Italy in order to train to be an emperor. With Rome back under their hands, Justinian now thought of visiting Ravenna which here was still under Byzantine hands as the Ostrogoths were still scattered around Italy.

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The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Emperor Trajan, 117AD

Now in 551, both Justinian and Andreas travelled north to Ravenna and would stay there for a long time, especially since Justinian had to fix the Byzantine administration of Italy, which was based there and during their stay in Ravenna, Justinian finally saw the mosaics in the church of San Vitale which he had commissioned years earlier which were to depict him and his court together with Belisarius, Narses, John the Cappadocian, senators, priests, and Excubitor guards by his side while across it was the one of Theodora and her court and seeing it, Justinian was in tears especially since he saw Theodora’s face and when seeing his own portrait, he too remembered the good times as he looked very young in it, remembering his early days as emperor when he was still attractive despite being over 40 but now at this point at 68, he was looked far different as he gained so much weight while his hair turned gray, and face started enlarging due to age and seeing Andreas, Justinian told him he will commission of mosaic of him in Ravenna as well- which had never happened in reality due to Andreas not existing anymore after 530.

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6th century Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The pair later toured Ravenna seeing it so dead after years of war and plague and in their walk, they also took a look at the beautifully decorated Mausoleum of the Western Roman empress Galla Placidia, the daughter of the last united Roman emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and seeing more of Ravenna, Justinian was amazed at how beautiful the mosaics were but was disappointed in remembering its shameful history under the incompetent western emperors that resided there like Honorius (r. 395-423) and Valentinian III that contributed to the fall of the west.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna

It was here in Ravenna where Justinian discovered there was a hidden plot against him all along by Belisarius’ secretary Procopius who was in Constantinople at this time and it was through Andreas where Justinian learned of it as the two were staying in Ravenna. Andreas here told Justinian that Procopius was plotting in a more subtle way which was that he was writing a secret book to slander Justinian and Theodora known as the Secret History which is a very biased account on Justinian’s reign and was only discovered in the 16th century and only made public in 1623, and this source is what gave many others a negative perspective on Justinian’s reign and Theodora’s sexual activities but on the other hand, Procopius in his main source on Justinian’s reign and the history of the Western and Eastern Roman empires entitled Wars, he remains the most valuable source as is very factual here. The truth however was that Procopius strongly envied Justinian for becoming emperor despite coming from humble origins as Procopius thought that if Justinian coming from nothing could come to power23, so could he but not wanting to fall out of favor with the imperial court, Procopius did not want to make his intentions clear so his solution was to write them all down somewhere for no one to see it.

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Procopius’ Secret History

Justinian meanwhile never knew of this work by Procopius but in this case, when being revealed of it by Andreas, he knew that Procopius was not to be trusted and what further angered him was how Procopius said Justinian walked around the palace at night in the form of monster similar to a Hydra and worse for Justinian, Theodora the love of his life was slandered. Andreas here told Justinian everything Procopius had told him and one of this- as Procopius did in fact write in is Secret History– was a slanderous accusation on Theodora in her earlier life as not only an actress but a prostitute wherein she performed a very explicit act of Leda and the Swan wherein Theodora as an actress stripped off all her clothing lying on the ground placing bird feed on her naked parts for the swans to feed on; of course this cannot be proven true because Procopius had not yet met Theodora when she was an actress and in this story’s case with Justinian knowing Theodora as an actress, he knew this was all an accusation.

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Theodora as an actress performing the act of “Leda and the Swan”

Andreas further tells Justinian24 that Procopius told him that he saw Theodora already as empress in the palace when at functions with other women dressed in something very explicit which Justinian never knew about and this outfit that she dressed in was a very lose dress that looked like it could easily slip off and had exposed too much skin leaving her shoulders completely bare (this here is the outfit Theodora is seen wearing in a 19th century painting by Jean-Benjamin Constant that inspired her look in the game Civilization V and Dovahhatty’s version of her). Justinian on the other hand was a man of strong Orthodox Christian morals but when hearing about all of this about Theodora, he accepted it as she was already gone and this was to be stuck in the past but surely- in Justinianus’ version- he never knew of this dress as he only knew Theodora like him wore purple robes decorated with jewellery but when hearing of it, Justinian knew that this could be a new fashion trend for future women considering that Justinian had just sent monks to the far away empire of China, known to them as Seres to smuggle silkworms in order for the Byzantines to manufacture their own without spending so much on imports.

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Empress Theodora in the so-called dress as described by Procopius, by Jane Arts (inspired by Jean-Benjamin Constant’s painting)

Justinian after hearing everything about Procopius was enraged especially hearing what was said about Theodora so he decided he had to punish him when returning to Constantinople but at the same time, he got word that his nephew Justin was going to arrive in Ravenna and the next day, both Justinian and Andreas headed to the harbor to greet Justin. Justinian at first nicely greets his now 30-year-old nephew but Justin rudely answers back that the sea trip made him seasick and that he has no purpose in Italy and therefore just wants to return to Constantinople but Justinian tells him that his first candidate for succession Germanus had died and wanting to honor Theodora’s choice of naming Justin his successor, Justinian believed that this mission in Italy will train Justin to be a strong ruler like his uncle and not a degenerate like his mother25. In the next few days in Ravenna, Justin begins developing a bond with his uncle that he was never really close to as real history too never mentions their bond and here Justin bonded with his uncle by accompanying him during meetings with government officials and military commanders in Ravenna. After a while Justinian remembered his sister Vigilantia who he had not seen and spoken to since Theodora’s funeral back in 548 though Justin tells his uncle that his mother was all fine and still stuffing herself as usual and Justinian hearing about this had some sense of relief.

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Justin II, Justinian I’s nephew, selfie style portrait, by Justinianus

Meanwhile, it had already been 16 years since the Gothic War of Italy had started and just as the Byzantine reconquest of Italy had resumed, the same old general John the Sanguinary with his subordinate commander Valerian were to engage the fleet of Totila in the Adriatic Sea just outside the city of Rimini and to assist the Byzantine forces in attacking the Ostrogoths by land, Justinian decided to head south from Ravenna to Rimini with Andreas and Justin and this mission was to train young Justin in military matters. As the Byzantine fleet engaged the Ostrogoth fleet off the Italian coast, the Byzantines had easily won a victory as they had more naval experience than the Ostrogoths, though ship rams weren’t much used anymore here by the 6th century, so instead, both fleets battled each other by boarding each other’s ships. As the naval Battle of Sena Gallica was fought in 551 like in real history, Justinian and his men entered Rimini which was still under Byzantine control awaiting an attack from the Ostrogoths and Justinian recalling his earlier years as a member of the Excubitor palace guard force remembered the basics of sword combat which he would then use here while for Justin, it was the first time he would use a sword though both Justinian and his nephew here had not put on any armor. Justinian meanwhile did not know much about fighting in open battle so he simply told Justin to just follow Andreas here and so the fictional battle begins at this moment as the Ostrogoth army begins firing arrows at them. Justinian not skilled enough to face open battle hides inside a weapons’ storage room while Andreas orders the city gates to be sealed and for their archers to continuously fire back at the advancing Ostrogoths while Justin decides to have the ballistae at the city walls to fire back at the Ostrogoths.

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Ostrogoth army, 6th century

Meanwhile, in the hills surrounding Rimini several campfires were lit to make it look like a larger Byzantine army was going to clash at the Ostrogoths but again this was Belisarius pulling out the same old trick he did before exactly here years ago and this forced many of the Ostrogoths to flee, although some still stayed behind and managed to scale the walls. Justinian meanwhile got out of the building to check what was happening and as an Ostrogoth charged at him, Justinian killed him with his sword. Afterwards grabbing his spear and throwing it, killing another Ostrogoth. A number of arrows then fired towards Justinian but despite his old age, he managed to block them while running to pick up a shield inside the same building he came from while Andreas ordered his men to form a shield wall to block off the arrows. As Justinian headed inside the building to grab a shield, the building due to the Ostrogoths’ flaming arrows caught fire and as the flames continued burning the building, Justin as well as Andreas ran straight inside to rescue Justinian and Justin here was able to escape before the ceiling collapsed but Andreas was trapped inside, however a few minutes later Andreas jumped out and fell unconscious at the ground. At around the same time, the Byzantine fleet destroyed the Ostrogoth fleet while in this case, Belisarius outside routed the rest of the Ostrogoths, though Justinian and Justin were at a panic despite their victory as Andreas was knocked out unconscious. Justin then called for doctor for Andreas and Andreas was then brought to Rimini’s governor’s villa to be healed.

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Emperor Justinian I and his men mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Empress Theodora and her court mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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Drawing of Theodora’s hidden dress according to Procopius (in this story), by Powee Celdran
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Naval Battle of Sena Gallica, 551, Byzantine victory over the Ostrogoths

 

Andreas rested for the next 2 weeks but was at least relieved hearing that the Ostrogoths had been beaten by Belisarius while Narses on the other hand who was already in Italy was continuing the fight and the search for Totila. Justin on the other hand was sent to join both Belisarius and Narses who now at least began getting along with each other especially since the troublemaking John was no longer with them and was instead sent back to Constantinople after his recent naval victory. For a much longer time now, both Justinian and Andreas were doing nothing as the wounded Andreas still had to recover from his burns while Justinian in his spare time wandered off to see the Italian countryside and coastline and seeing the countryside gave Justinian memories of his simple childhood in the Balkans while the coastline gave him memories and here he began to think how far he went in life from just a simple peasant boy in a remote part of the empire to now coming so close to ruling the known world. When meeting Andreas again, Justinian full of inspiration said he is the emperor to be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan” or Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano in Latin but knowing he could not achieve the dream alone, Justinian considered turning the Franks of Gaul to his side despite them planning an invasion of Italy before though when thinking if the Franks ever turned against them, he even considered a Roman reconquest of Gaul, though history never specified if Justinian aimed to take back Gaul from the Franks.

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Ruins of Aquileia, original city destroyed by Attila the Hun in 552

The year 551 then had passed and now in 552, Andreas was fully recovered from the accident that almost caused him his life and so it was time they headed to Aquileia together with Justin who had returned to them in order to face off the Ostrogoths one more time and after a long ride north, they had arrived in the ruined city of Aquileia right at the 100th year anniversary of when Attila the Hun destroyed it (452) though Justinian also remembered that nearby there was growing community in a lagoon founded by the survivors of the attack on Aquileia (today’s Venice). At Aquileia, the 3 with their small army were met with nothing, instead heavy rain started pouring while at the same time a messenger told them that Totila had headed west so the rest of them decided to escape Aquileia through the sewers as the rain was pouring and due to city being totally destroyed, there was no roof to hide under. The rains got stronger and stronger and so did the wind, thus Justinian concluded this was the worst storm he’s seen in his entire life but not wasting time, all of them including the old emperor crawled through the city’s abandoned sewers despite them almost drowning but at least they were able to get out alive exiting at a farm whereas the sky had already cleared. Justinian thought that everything was over until a spear flew at his direction thus seeing another Ostrogoth army charge at them, Justinian then grabbed that spear and threw it back at the Ostrogoths.

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Ostrogothic cavalry

Andreas saw that it was impossible to face this great number of enemies but luckily, he saw a spare carriage which he had Justinian board with him as Andreas drove it while Justin sat behind firing arrows while the rest of the army was to mount the horses stolen from the Ostrogoths. The carriage sped through the Italian countryside for kilometers running over as many Ostrogoths as possible while here Justin suddenly discovered he was skilled with a bow26 while Justinian realized he totally missed on life as he spent so much time indoors and, in the city, when experiencing so much action in this chase. Soon enough, the Hunnish cavalry of Belisarius was spotted and here they were totally crushing the Ostrogoth forces and soon Belisarius himself was spotted doing as he always did, slashing every Ostrogoth that he came across. With the Ostrogoths almost defeated, Andreas stopped the carriage while he together with Justinian and Justin jumped off rolling in the grass of the Italian countryside (in which this would be in the area of Bologna).

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Byzantine general Narses, 552

The Byzantines here had won this fictional battle which totally weakened the Ostrogoth forces but Totila had not lost yet, however at the same time another major battle occurred (factual this time) somewhere in Umbria in the village known as Taginae wherein Totila now intent to take the Byzantine throne dressed in the gold armor and purple cloak of a Byzantine emperor led a surprise charge at the army of Narses but the 74-year-old Narses ordered his men mostly consisting of Lombard mercenaries to stay still and wait for the Ostrogoths to charge at them and with his massive size and intimidating presence, Narses was able to crush and rout the Ostrogoths by having his army assemble in a crescent-shaped phalanx formation and in the Ostrogoths’ escape, Totila was killed by the Byzantine forces. Back in the north of Italy, Belisarius after this fictional victory got word of Narses’ victory and Totila’s death making him more energized to continue the war however Andreas stepped up and told Belisarius that the emperor himself was tired after this battle they have gone through.

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Totila before the Battle of Taginae, 552

Though Totila was killed, his son Teia succeeded him as the King of the Ostrogoths without a capital and with the Ostrogoths still around, Belisarius told Justinian here that they must station the army all over Italy to enhance their presence and finally finish off the Ostrogoths once and for all by killing of Teia. Justinian, Justin, Belisarius, and Andreas remained at the army camp in this part of Northern Italy for weeks and here messenger came giving word to Belisarius that the Franks hearing about the defeat of Totila were planning to invade Italy to avenge Totila and here Justinian knew that the Franks true enough betrayed him but Justinian knowing that the Franks being barbarians despite being Catholic-Orthodox and not Arian would always take the side of their fellow barbarians so here he did not bother to plan an invasion of Gaul anymore as the war Italy plus the plague effort had already drained the treasury but he still had enough funds for another small reconquest and this would be Visigoth Hispania or at least just the southern coast of it for Justinian. Ever since 549 when the Visigoth king Agila came to power, as a fanatical Arian, he had been persecuting his Catholic-Orthodox subjects causing a rebellion led by a Visigoth noble named Athanagild who supported the oppressed Catholic-Orthodox citizens there even though just like Totila he was eyeing the throne and so here in 552, news got to Justinian that Athanagild was crowned king despite Agila still reigning and seeing this conflict as a reason to defend the Orthodox Christian faith, Justinian agreed to help Athanagild but also because Justinian knew that if he retook Southern Hispania this would create a buffer zone to prevent the ambitious Visigoths from invading Byzantine North Africa knowing that a century ago, the Vandals that took over North Africa crossed the narrow strait from Hispania. The problem now was who to send to reconquer Hispania as Belisarius and Narses were both needed to clean up the mess in Italy while Justinian feeling tired decided to return to Constantinople so without any more choices Justinian asked his nephew Justin to be the one to go over to Hispania with the assistance of the now 87-year-old Liberius and since Liberius was too old to actually lead his men at front, the job was up to the now 32-year-old Justin27. At first Justin with tears objected saying this war in Italy traumatized him- in which this kind of trauma would define his reign in real history- but Justinian with such encouragement told him that to be a great emperor means to face his fears even if means dealing with them with such ruthlessness and here Justinian told his nephew about the time he almost lost to fear yet almost lost his life at the Nika Riot 20 years ago whereas Justin was only 12 here, therefore not at all involved in the events. Back then in 532, when seeing the intensity of the riot to overthrow him, Justinian kept negotiating with them to the point of threatening them with death and when nothing worked, his advisors even told him to just leave the city and let the people’s candidate Hypatius take the throne while Justinian could just one day take back the throne but Theodora stepped up in front of Justinian and his entire court with a very strong and motivating speech ending with the phrase “the royal purple is noblest shroud” meaning that she’d rather die than lose throne and Justinian here took this advice to heart and conquered his fear by having Belisarius, Narses, and Mundus end the violence with violence.

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Theodora convinces Justinian to crush the Nika Riot, 532

20 years later in 552, Justinian was still living with that fear28 but this event only made him wiser and so here he told Justin to remember that event when he feels he is about to lose and that Justin should not lose as he has the best and strongest men of the empire with him at all times being Justinian, Belisarius, Narses, and Andreas. Here would also be when Justinian would say one of his most his most famous  lines “keep cool and you will command everyone” to Justin as a word of advice. Feeling some encouragement, Justin nodded at his uncle and was told to remain in Italy with Belisarius and Narses until Liberius arrived from Constantinople while Justinian with Andreas by his side was to tour the rest of Italy to see the damage of the war in order to study on how to rebuild it from the ashes before heading back to Constantinople.

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Byzantines defeat the Ostrogoths at the Battle of Taginae, 552, by Amelianvs

Watch this to learn more about the final part of Justinian I’s Italian Conquest (Kings and Generals).

 

After the 17-year Gothic War plus the plague, Italy had turned into a depopulated wasteland that was beyond repair but I believe that if Justinian were there to see the aftermath of the war, he would know how exactly to deal with it although the damage was beyond his control but what he could do to repair Italy is to make sure it will one day be repopulated in this case, seeing the ruins of Italy, Justinian will allow people from more populated parts of the empire like Egypt and Syria to come over to Italy to settle as well as loyal barbarian allies wherein they could settle down as citizens. Before heading back to Constantinople, Justinian and Andreas visited Rome one more time and after a 3 week journey by sea, they finally arrived back in the capital and Justinian now being old, went first to Theodora’s tomb to pay his respects, then to check on the progress on the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics seeing the one with himself already completed, and then finally to bed without doing anything else for 2 full weeks as he now believed that 25 years of hard work since coming to power in 527 had finally paid off despite the reconquest of Italy not completely over and one more mission to back Hispania yet to come but Justinian knew he had done his part in growing the empire and it was now up to his generals and Justin to finish the job.

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Mosaic of Justinian I in the Hagia Sophia

After his 2-week break, Justinian met with the very old Liberius- although history is unclear on which general led the reconquest of Hispania beginning 552 but the contemporary historian Jordanes says it was Liberius- and in this story, Justinian asked Liberius to serve the empire once more by heading to Italy first to meet up with Justin and then sail to Hispania. In real history though, Justin had stayed in Constantinople this whole time and so did Justinian of course still ruling as a palace emperor but 552 was also a major year for Justinian back in Constantinople as this was when the monks sent to China finally arrived with the ultimate prize, silkworms. In this story’s case, as Justinian returned to Constantinople, the monks who were originally sent as missionaries to India but later discovered the silk to be from what is the Empire of China, the distant highly advanced empire the Romans have been hearing for centuries. Hearing from the monks of this distant land as superior as the Byzantines to culture, Justinian was highly fascinated but what struck him more was the treasure they brought home and these monks revealed it by pulling it out of their bamboo canes, and here were the silkworms that could produce the finest silk. With the economy ruined from the plague and the war in Italy, Justinian thought the best solution was for the Byzantines to build silk factories and farms in the empire in order to produce their own high-quality silk without having to import them from the Sassanids who imported them from China and in this case with the Sassanid Empire on the verge of collapse due to the plague, there were would be no one to import these silks directly from anymore.

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Silkworm in a mulberry bush

The monks told Justinian the whole process of making silk which they saw for themselves in China and that these worms would grow in mulberry bushes in which the empire had many of and so Justinian ready for this new ambitious project had mulberry bushes planted across the empire and silk factories built in the distant rural places of the empire so not many would uncover this secret process of silk making. Another issue Justinian had to deal with back at home was course Procopius where in this story’s case he discovered the lies Procopius spread about him and here Justinian confronted him ordering him to burn the Secret History and here Procopius showed his villainous side saying that he indeed deserved the throne. Andreas who was with Justinian here in Procopius’ house tried to kill Procopius but to punish him Justinian just confiscated this book and had Procopius exiled to the Crimea north of the Black Sea to live his entire life while Justinian himself took this book of lies and burned it himself.

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Procopius of Caesarea mosaic

Now Justinian here would not have Procopius executed as his previous book Wars wrote about Justinian’s reign very well and factually but Procopius still needed to answer for his false accusations, but in real history, Justinian never knew of Procopius’ accusations and Procopius lived until 570, 5 years passed Justinian’s death. However, the sources for Justinian’s later reign after 552 would no longer come from Procopius but from another contemporary Greek historian here named Agathias who was an eyewitness to all these events in the 550s. Italy meanwhile was still as impoverished as ever and the war still not over but in 553, Narses won one more victory against the Ostrogoths at Mons Lactarius in Southern Italy where the last King of the Ostrogoths Teia was killed, thus earning Narses the title “Hammer of the Goths” and finally the war was over, though the last of the Ostrogoths would go into hiding in the mountains of Italy. As for Justinian in 553, he could now fully function again but the loss of Theodora still saddened him but it was here in 553 when he headed an important Church Council known as the 2nd Council of Constantinople to once again solve the schism with the Monophysites which never really came to any results.

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The Hagia Sophia fully completed
Monks present silkworms to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian
Justinian I receives silkworms from monks coming from China, 552
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Silk production in 6th century China
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Justinian I at the 2nd Council of Constantinople, 553
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Final defeat of the Ostrogoths to the Byzantines at the Battle of Mons Lactarius, 553

Watch this to learn more about silk production in Justinian I’s Byzantium (Kings and Generals).

 

In Italy, Justin and had already departed by sea to Hispania the moment Liberius arrived later on in 552 and this case Belisarius still remained in Italy together with Narses beyond 553 but when thinking the war was all over, the Franks from Gaul invaded Italy in late 553 promising to help the Ostrogoths but were too late, though it not matter anyway as they still wanted a war with the Byzantines. The Franks split themselves up into two groups though the first one when marching south all suffered the plague as it had returned in Italy wherein a large number of them died while the other group charged at Narses’ army at the Volturnus River in Southern Italy where here in this story with Belisarius joining Narses, the phalanx of Narses’ men held back the Franks while Belisarius’ Bucellarii cavalry rushed and destroyed them all, thus Italy was spared from the Frankish attack though some Franks would join the remaining Ostrogoths in their holdouts.

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Frankish army, 6th century

Now over in Hispania, the Byzantine fleet with Liberius and Justin in this story’s case with a smaller army that came from Narses’ men in Italy arrived in what is now Malaga in late 552 and for the next year fought beside their ally Athanagild against Agila’s forces in the civil war. History though does not record much about the Byzantine reconquest of Southern Hispania except that they were supported by Athanagild and his rebels while Liberius in 553 returned to Constantinople when the Southern coast was already taken back. Since there is not much records on this conquest of Visigoth Hispania, I would not explain much about it anymore except that Justin now gaining some confidence continued leading his very small army in battle using the knowledge he learned when fighting in Italy and of course keeping to heart the advice his uncle gave him during their time in Italy. The moment the Byzantines had taken the southern coast of Spain in order to block the Visigoths from crossing over to North Africa, Athanagild felt betrayed as he only wanted the Byzantines’ help not for them to take land but since Agila was still around, Athanagild still acknowledged the presence of the Byzantines there.

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Athanagild, rebel leader and King of Visigoth Hispania (r. 554-567)

Now if Italy may have been severely damaged by the wars, Hispania was still fresh and Justin here saw that Hispania could be the new frontier for many Byzantines to settle in as it was fertile, spacious, and very significant to Roman history as this was where the great emperors like Trajan and Hadrian originated in. By 554, the Byzantine reconquest of Hispania was over and having at least the southern coast, Justinian in Constantinople ordered the conquests to stop for he had what he already wanted and here Justin would return alone to Constantinople now celebrated as a hero while Liberius at age 89 also died this year in Constantinople. In 555, the supporters of Agila fearing the success of the Byzantines in the south turned on and assassinated him defecting to Athanagild who now became King of the Visigoths. Now in 555, Justinian’s ambitious reconquest of the Meditrranean known as the Renovatio Imperii was all over and now he could focus on securing peace all over his empire. At this point, the Byzantine Empire controlled the entire Mediterranean again as a “Roman lake” and had spanned north to south from the Crimea in Ukraine to Egypt and west to east from Southern Spain to Syria but no matter how large the empire was again, it was in ruin as the plague and wars took the lives of countless that by 555, the population of the empire had dropped by a million since Justinian came to power in 527.

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Byzantines defeat the Franks at the Battle of Volturnus in Italy, 554
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Byzantine Province of Spania (purple), conquered in 554
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World Map, 555AD, end of Justinian I’s conquests (purple)

 

The Last Years of Justinian, Aftermath, and Conclusion (555-565)

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With North Africa, Italy, and some of Hispania under Roman rule again, Justinian could finally enjoy life at his old age with his remaining family members and focus on keeping the peace. The moment all the reconquests were over, Justinian no longer cared about fighting wars as that time had passed and luckier for him 555, at least in this story’s case, he finally received the most relieving news ever from the Sassanid Empire, which was that Khosrow had contacted the plague and died, though in real history the war against Khosrow went on until 562 while Khosrow himself lived until 579. In this case though with Khosrow dead and the plague still ongoing in the Sassanid Empire, there was no more Sassanid Empire as the death of Khosrow broke the empire apart into smaller states ruled by Khosrow’s sons all at war with each other and still suffering heavily from the plague and Justinian here can be indirectly credited for destroying the Sassanid Empire by sending plague victims and fleas there.

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Mosaic of the old Justinian I in Ravenna

The final dissolution of the Sassanid Empire that pained the Romans for 3 long decades had come and Justinian with a sigh of relief turned to his new hobby as an old man which was the farming silkworms and the making silks which in a few years became mass produced and a major export of Byzantium. In addition, in this story at least, the monks back in 552 gave Justinian a gift of Chinese herbs which were given to doctors and true enough these proved more effective in healing people who were still affected by the plague as by this point, the plague still kept coming on and off which still deeply worried Justinian since he wanted the population of the empire to grow but the plague’s victims were usually newborn babies. To ensure a population growth to his damaged empire, Justinian working with old jurist friend Tribonian again issued laws to encourage families especially in rural areas to keep producing children. Tribonian meanwhile would die in 556 from the long-term effects of contracting the plague28 while Belisarius too returned to Constantinople again and this time to fully retire in his estate in Thrace.

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Byzantine made silk using the Chinese technique

With everything now settled down, Justinian at last had some good time to spend with his remaining family members having frequent get togethers in the imperial palace and here, he would grow his bond with his nephew Justin by continuing to train him more to be an emperor and with his sister Vigilantia, Justinian here now done with all his hard work would finally fix their relationship that they would soon enough grow closer to each other. Out of the family members, Justin’s wife and Theodora’s niece Sophia would be the one to grow very close to Justinian as she would be the one asking for his advice in running an empire as Sophia wanted to imitate her aunt Theodora as well when her time comes to be Justin’s empress. Justinian meanwhile would try to find ways to get over his grief of losing Theodora and a lot of this would be by taking hunting trips and playing Byzantine Polo or Tzykanion with his nephew Justin, the retired Belisarius, and Andreas who was still actively in military service. As for the silk manufacturing, things have been starting to become very successful in such a short time and as the manufacturing began, the first silk product to made was a dress for Sophia, the upcoming empress and apparently the dress custom made for her was exactly the same revealing type Theodora secretly wore as Procopius said, meaning her niece knew about except for Sophia, it fit more perfectly on her as the new silks were sturdier that it would not fall off as it did with Theodora before. Now with Sophia, this dress from becoming a deep secret would become well known to the women of the empire even being introduced as a fashion trend- even if this dress is entirely fictional appearing first in the 19th century by Jean-Benjamin Constant.

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Dome of the Hagia Sophia, damaged by the 557 earthquake

The Hagia Sophia’s mosaics too had been completed but in December of 557, a terrible tragedy would happen which was a massive earthquake that struck Constantinople and since the city was so dense with very little open spaces, people had no safe place to take refuge. According to Agathias who documented this event, he says that the earthquake almost “destroyed” the city but it had lasted very quick and luckily did not kill a large number, though it still left many especially in the crowded areas homeless. In the panic as the earthquake struck that December night, people behaved as if disorder reigned but as the earthquake ceased minutes later, they all cheered and embraced each other as the worst was over while Justinian was fast asleep in the palace not noticing anything. Justinian only knew of the earthquake after waking up and when inspecting the city- here in this case with his nephew Justin- seeing so much damage again, he broke down inside as another disaster had come again in his reign. Out of respect for the people, Justinian refused to wear his crown for 40 days and with the money that the state had been generating from the silk production, he decided to use that to pay for repairing the damage caused by the earthquake. In the months following the earthquake, there too had been a change among the people’s attitudes as Agathias states as well wherein the rich who never turned to charity turned to it, while doubters began to pray, and the most vicious of men started helping others out but this only lasted short as a few months later, they all reverted to their usual attitudes. The Hagia Sophia meanwhile did not receive a lot of damage from the earthquake for the meantime but in May of 558, a terrible tragedy came again as the dome of the Hagia Sophia Justinian and his architects had worked so hard on completely collapsed, but at least most of the mosaics still remained unharmed. Despite having had too much already in his life, the very old Justinian still acted strong and had the dome rebuild and considering that a first dome was already made and that its blueprints were still around, building a second one was not so much a problem anymore, but it would take time. Meanwhile, just as Justinian thought all his wars were over29, a group of Huns known as the Kutrigurs allied with the Slavic tribes crossed the Danube River into the empire and were directly headed to Constantinople to attack it but at least were held back by the Anastasian Wall of Thrace built ages ago.

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Kutrigur Hun warrior, 559

Since most of the army was scattered across the empire stationed in the newly conquered provinces of Hispania, Italy, and North Africa, Justinian in 559 when hearing of this new invasion asked Belisarius to come out of retirement one last time to fight off these invaders- as it did happen in real history too- except in this case, the now older Belisarius was joined again by Andreas, Justinian’s nephew Justin and Justin’s younger brother Marcellus who was now an experienced general. With most of the army scattered across the empire, Belisarius here only commanded 300 of his veteran soldiers as well as Thracian locals who he asked to assist them by scattering across the woods and again to use the same trick Belisarius did before against the Ostrogoths in Italy by lighting several campfires to make it look like they have a much larger army to scare the enemy. This small battle took place in the village of Melantias just 20km west of Constantinople and it had been an easy victory for the Byzantines as the Kutrigurs and their Slavic allies fled in a panic when seeing the campfires and in their flight were ambushed by the 300 veterans led by both Belisarius and in this case Justin as well.

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Byzantine soldier (right) attacks a Slav (left) and a Kutrigur Hun (behind) at the Battle of Melantias, 559

The Kutrigurs then fled back north leaving the empire for good and to further secure the Danube border from the invaders beyond, Justinian had the river fortresses built by previous Roman emperors rebuilt while Belisarius after fighting his last battle retired once again. Narses meanwhile still remained in Italy ever since he ended the war defeating the Franks in 554 and in these years, he was assigned to assembling Byzantine garrisons in all the cities and recruiting new men to the army though the last of the Ostrogoths and Franks had still remained at the holdouts and it was only in 562 that all the remaining Ostrogoths and Franks were fully defeated and the entire Italy pacified. The years between 559 and 562 remained uneventful for Justinian, his family, and Belisarius but in this case with the Sassanid Empire destroyed after Khosrow dying of the plague in 555 leaving their empire broken apart into many states, the Kingdom of Lazica in Georgia in which they Byzantines and Sassanids have been fighting over in the previous years, here been annexed to the Byzantine Empire as a result of the Sassanid Empire’s dissolution30. It also happened in 562 that the retired Belisarius out of nowhere was accused by his political enemies of plotting against Justinian, thus he was summoned to a court hearing wherein he was judged guilty and thrown in prison, the same way as it did in real history. Not so long after, Justinian himself freed Belisarius from prison and pardoned him from all these false charges made against him; though one legend here says that when Belisarius was judged guilty, he was blinded and turned into a beggar but in reality, and in this story’s case too, Belisarius was pardoned and allowed to return to retirement for the rest of his life.

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Legend of the blind Belisarius

It is also believed that the judge who ruled Belisarius guilty was his former secretary Procopius who secretly despised him too but in this story with Procopius exiled to the Crimea, the judge here would be another one named Procopius. The next 3 years again would remain uneventful except here, a now aging Justinian could not fully rule his empire alone, here in this story’s case, his nephew Justin now appointed to the newly created position of Curopalates or “head of the palace” like in real history too was ever more experienced in state matters after years of training under his uncle and fighting wars in Italy, Hispania, and recently against the Kutrigurs, it was now him running the state and attending most of the senate meetings while his uncle had now become too weak to attend them all. In March of 565, Belisarius’ time had come as he died in his sleep in his estate but at least he died a peaceful and happy death after a lifetime of fighting wars for the empire suffering defeats but achieving a lot of victories too. The death of Belisarius better known as the “Last of the Romans” further saddened Justinian as now he had lost his best general but at the same time it was all fine as Belisarius had served his purpose and Justinian too knew that his time was almost near.

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Sophia in the dress patterned after Theodora’s using the new Byzantine silk, by Ravesne
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557 Earthquake of Constantinople
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Justinian I at the funeral of Belisarius, 565  
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The Byzantine Empire (yellow) at Justinian I’s death, 565  

 

On the night of November 14, 565 Justinian the Great had at last died in his sleep at the age of 83 from a heart attack. The only person to witness Justinian’s last moments on earth was Callinicus, the eunuch assigned to the palace’s bedrooms and in real history, it was Callinicus that claimed that Justinian named his nephew Justin his successor though it is unclear what Justinian’s exact dying words were but surely, he named someone named Justin his successor although this could be the other Justin who was the son of Justinian’s long-gone cousin Germanus who was original designated heir. Callinicus on the other hand claimed it was Justin being Justinian’s sister Vigilantia’s son that was to succeed the throne and whether this claim was true or not, Callinicus was in favor of Justinian’s nephew Justin as he was someone who could be easily manipulated, in real history at least, but in this version since Justin underwent several years of training both running the government from Constantinople and fighting wars in Italy and Hispania, he was surely ready to take throne. In this version as well, Justinian before dying was already prepared for his nephew to succeed him while Justin was nothing but ready to become emperor and rule a massive empire whereas in real history, Justin reluctantly accepted becoming emperor and was not ready for it as he lacked the experience as in the past years, all he did was manage the palace as Curopalates.

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Emperor Justin II, nephew and successor of Justinian I, by Akitku

It however remains unclear what Justinian was thinking before he died, but I’d say for this story that Justinian came to think that he has achieved so much more than any emperor in his era could by conquering North Africa, Italy, and Southern Hispania all under his rule no matter the odds, he also came to think that he was truly blessed as he survived the plague when almost dying from it, he thought about the empress Ariadne who inspired him to dream big and restore the empire of old so many years ago, he thought about his uncle Justin who made it possible for him to become emperor, he thought about how he came so far from being a simple peasant boy in the Balkans to becoming the ruler of the entire Mediterranean, he thought about how he succeeded in training his nephew Justin to become a strong ruler just as he was, and lastly he thought about Theodora the love of his life and that now he was ready to join her in the afterlife. The day after Justinian’s death, Justin II who was 45 at this point- same age his uncle was when coming to power in 527- was crowned as the new Augustus by John Scholasticus, the newly appointed patriarch Justinian appointed before his death while Sophia who was now 37 here was crowned as the new empress or Augusta. Now in this story as well as in real history, Justin II would be the first Byzantine emperor to be crowned in the new Hagia Sophia rebuilt by Justinian I while a few days after the coronation, Justinian’s funeral took place and it would be attended by literally everyone in the city as the funeral of the century, even grander than Theodora’s funeral 17 years earlier. At the beginning of his reign, Justinian may have been unpopular for many things including his taxation policies and choices of people in the government but now at his death after a reign of 38 years, he was mourned by all as he fought hard to give his people a strong empire, he built a massive cathedral like no other seen around the world being the Hagia Sophia, he managed to save his empire from the plague and rebuild the economy, he reclaimed 50% of the lands in the west that had fallen to the barbarians in the previous century thus making the entire Mediterranean Sea Roman again, and lastly but in this story’s case only he had managed to destroy the Roman Empire’s longest enemy being the Sassanid Empire turning them into small ineffective states by sending the plague there. At the day of Justinian’s funeral, people from all classes all paid their respects by falling in line to bow down at his body as it was on display and when everyone got their chance to do so, Justinian was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles right next to Theodora and as the centuries went by, something unique occurred with Justinian’s corpse which was that it had not decayed and this would be noticed centuries later in 1204 when an invading army of Crusader soldiers from Western Europe sacked Byzantine Constantinople looting Justinian’s tomb in the process wherein they found his body still intact. As Justinian joined Theodora in the afterlife, his spirit looked down on Justin ensuring he will rule long and well and the first acts of Justin II was to pay off all his uncle’s debts which failed to pay as he died before doing it while for the palace guard force or Excubitors, Justin like in real history appointed his friend Tiberius as their commander. On the other hand, Justinian before his death commissioned the construction of the Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine in the deserts of Egypt but it was only completed after his death in 565 and in the following year, when Justin heard of its completion, he and Sophia travelled to Egypt to inaugurate it31. Part of the lessons Justin II learned from his uncle was to be ruthless to stay in power and here in Egypt, joining him was the other Justin who was also considered as Justinian’s heir and suspecting the other Justin would plot against him, Justin II also listening to his wife’s advice had the other Justin, the son of Germanus assassinated in Alexandria- as it also did happen in real history- except Justin II and Sophia weren’t in Egypt in reality. Sophia on the other hand, grew to be ruthless and energetic as empress much like her aunt Theodora was before yet she too had the same level of beauty as Theodora even as she continued aging, yet Sophia still remained the style icon still introducing new fashion trends to women across the empire with the new silks that Byzantium here was now proud of making. In real history, it was in Justin II’s reign when Byzantium became a major exporter of silk but the empty treasury caused by the plague and the wars of Justinian was a constant headache for Justin II, so with an empty treasury Justin II had to carelessly undo his uncle’s policy of paying tribute to all their enemies beyond their borders thus triggering the Avar hordes beyond the Danube to begin making raids again into the Balkans while in the west, he discontinued paying tribute to the Lombards allowing them to already raid into Italy in 568, just 3 years after Justin came into power while Narses now in his 90s was recalled to Constantinople wherein he died in 572.

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Lombards first invade Byzantine Italy, 568

For Justin II in real history, the biggest disaster was the Lombard invasion of Italy led by their king Alboin beginning 568 when the whole of Italy had just recently been taken back from Ostrogoths, yet in only a few years after 568 the Lombards took over most of Byzantine Italy leaving only major cities like Rome and Ravenna still under the Byzantines. Though if not for Italy, the even bigger disaster in Justin II’s reign in reality was the resumption of the war against the Sassanid Empire in 572 when Justin II again running out of funds decided to refuse paying tribute to Khosrow I who still ruled the Sassanid Empire, thus the war resumed while Justin due to the war with the Sassanids resuming and everything the Byzantines had worked on to put Italy back under Roman rule again falling apart due to the Lombards, Justin completely lost his sanity in 572 that the contemporary late 6th century historian John of Ephesus, who previously wrote about the plague, said Justin behaved like a wild animal, was wheeled around the palace in a mobile throne, tried to throw himself off a window, and once ate a person in front of everyone that in 574, at Sophia’s suggestion Justin abdicated making his closest friend and the commander of the palace guard Tiberius who would be adopted as his son and heir to be his regent together with Sophia.

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The insanity of Justin II as emperor, by Amelianvs

Justin II thus did not rule long and in 578 he died at age 58 and was succeeded as Augustus by his adopted heir Tiberius as Justin and Sophia had no children and as the new emperor, Tiberius II Constantine at least was more capable in ruling as in Justin II’s reign he was a highly competent general that successfully managed to contain the raiding Avars and Slavs in the Danube border and later successfully fight off the Sassanids. As the senior Augustus of the empire following Justin II’s death in 578, Tiberius was at least effective in the war against the Sassanids but in his service he had a highly competent Cappadocian general named Maurice and after only ruling as Augustus for 4 years, Tiberius died in 582 and was succeeded by Maurice who then married Tiberius’ daughter Constantia. To put it short, Maurice was another highly competent emperor in this time of war that in 591 he finally ended the war against the Sassanids by putting his own ally Khosrow I’s grandson Khosrow II in the Sassanid throne, thus Maurice believed he could continue to maintain and restore the massive empire Justinian I left behind but in the Danube, the war against the Avars and Slavs were far from over and his soldiers tired of war and not being paid enough for risking their lives as the treasury was already running low turned on Maurice who in 602 was overthrown and executed by a usurper soldier named Phocas who proclaimed himself emperor. Maurice’s execution though was taken harshly by his ally, the Sassanid ruler Khosrow II who then declared war on the already war-torn Byzantine Empire and from here on, it is all downhill for the Byzantines. This though would be the final war against the Sassanids but it lasted for more than 20 years ending in 628 leaving both Byzantine and Sassanid Empires at a breaking point that in only a few years after the war, a new enemy came out of nowhere being the Arabs ready to finish off both empire and though the Sassanid Empire here completely fell to the Arabs, the Byzantines at least survived but at a great cost.

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St. Catherine’s Orthodox Monastery in Egypt, completed in 565, built under Justinian I
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Imperial court of the disabled Justin II (behind) with Empress Sophia (left) and Tiberius II as Caesar (right), in reality, by Amelianvs
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) next to the Sassanid Empire (orange)
The Byzantine Emperor Maurice about to be executed by the usurper Phocas, having seen his five children killed in front of him, 602
Execution of Emperor Maurice in 602, end of the Justinian Dynasty

 

In this version however, considering the Sassanid Empire was destroyed in 555 by the plague which killed its ruler Khosrow I, this was a great relief for Justin II and even though the treasury ran low due to the previous wars and the plague, at least he did not have to go through the stress off paying off Khosrow I anymore or the stress of risking another massive war against the Sassanids in the east. In this story’s case too, Narses would still be recalled to Constantinople by Sophia but Andreas who was still currently serving as a general would replace Narses in command of Italy, while in the Balkans both Justin’s younger brother Marcellus and the palace guard commander Tiberius would be in charge of containing the raiding Avars and Slavs. The Lombards meanwhile under Alboin would still raid into Northern Italy but Andreas here with new recruits would do all he could to stop them though at the end, I would see it in a way that only Northern Italy including Milan would fall to the Lombards but the rest would still be under the Byzantines unlike in reality where the Lombards by the end of the 6th century already took over half of Italy.

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Alboin, King of the Lombards (r. 560-572)

As for Hispania on the other hand, Justin II in this story’s case after seeing the place for himself years earlier would consider building growing Byzantine communities there along the southern coast with a vision in making it an important trading hub like it was in the days of the old Roman Empire and this could also help in growing the economy and building a place wherein the empire could live on in case the Balkans would continue being threatened by the Avar and Slavs. In addition, I would say Justin II without having to worry about the Sassanids anymore would eventually launch a reconquest of at least Southern Gaul which would later be able to connect Byzantine Hispania to Italy by land. The reigning Visigoth king of Hispania Athanagild though would continue causing problems for Justin II’s Byzantium but in 567, just 2 years after Justin came to power, Athanagild would die just like in real history and would be succeeded by Leovigild who like in real history would reign Hispania imitating the rule of Justinian I by also issuing a codex and Byzantine style coins. Leovigild in this case would also make himself an ally of Justin II and like in real history, Leovigild in 584 would defeat and conquer the Suebi Kingdom in Northwest Hispania.

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Leovigild, King of the Visigoths of Hispania (r. 568-586)

Now in this case, the major factor for Justin II ruling more effectively without coming to a mental breakdown in 572 was the mere fact that the Sassanid Empire had been destroyed and this is the major what if for this story. I would believe that if the Sassanid Empire was destroyed indirectly by Justinian, then the Byzantines would be able to continue maintaining their hold on the west, particularly Italy which was the ultimate prize for Justinian. As for Justin II, with the Sassanid Persian threat non-existent, he would have no reason to have breakdowns, also considering in this story’s case wherein he underwent years of training under his uncle and rather than turning insane due to all the pressure, Justin II would still continue to run the empire effectively together with Sophia doing the same as Justinian and Theodora did before them. Unlike Justinian who worked hard on military campaigns to expand his empire, Justin II on the other hand here would be happy with whatever he has and choose to keep the empire that way without thinking of expanding anymore. Now if Justin II did not suffer losing his sanity, then I would say that he would rule until his death possibly in 585 at the age of 65 and since he and Sophia had no sons but only a daughter, the line would pass on to possibly Justin’s brother Marcellus who would probably pass it on to his sons in order to continue Justinian’s dynasty rather than Justin adopting Tiberius who would be the one to continue the dynasty, and although Tiberius II was adopted in reality, it still continued the dynasty which was continued to but finished off with Tiberius’ son-in-law Maurice.

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Tiberius II, Palace Guard Commander, and successor of Justin II in reality (r. 578-582)

In reality, though the Sassanid Empire was hit worse than Byzantium by the plague, it still managed to survive and later on go back to fighting wars with Byzantium again but in this case, I would say that with the complete destruction of the Sassanid Empire by the plague, Byzantium would’ve not been weakened by war in the decades to come as even though they would still be fighting against the Avars, Slavs, and Lombards, these wars were not as large in scale compared to that against the full might of the Sassanid Empire. The big question now is, if the Sassanid Empire died out because of the plague thus sparing Byzantium from the many more wars to come with the Sassanids later on as it did happen in real history, then would the Byzantine Empire survive the new Arab threat that is to come in the next century? True enough the Arab threat that rose in the 7th century that came directly for Byzantium and the Sassanids was unforeseen so nothing could have stopped it, and Justinian himself too would not know what was to come after his time. Now many would blame the downfall of Byzantium in the 7th century on Justinian’s ambitious over expanding of imperial territory but I would say that Justinian did not see the continuation of the war with the Sassanids and the rising Arab threat coming.